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Mark Shields: Discovering Columbus in 2012 Presidential Campaign

Obama may have stumbled in first debate, but Romney has yet to win over Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio — By now, we all know how historically important Ohio is for anyone who wants to be president. No Republican has ever been elected to the White House without carrying Ohio. The Buckeye State, alone of the 50, has voted for the winning presidential nominee in every one of the last 12 national elections.

This year, Ohio is up for grabs, and both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, including their running mates and relatives, can generally be found somewhere within driving distance of Chillicothe or Ashtabula or Pepper Pike.

So one week after what was, for Democrats, the disastrous first presidential debate in Denver — that was the one, you recall, where Obama chose not to show up in person, which left Democrats both perplexed and dispirited — a 2½-hour focus group featuring 12 thoughtful but honestly undecided Columbus-area voters discussing the campaign and the country turned out to be a treasure trove for anyone trying to understand U.S. politics in 2012.

The reason this session was so special is that while the participants were honest and interesting, the focus group was masterfully led for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania by respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

To listen to these Columbus voices was to appreciate how effectively Romney routed Obama in the Denver debate. Mike Larger, 35, who sells IT computer equipment and voted for Republican John Kasich for Ohio governor in 2010 and Obama in 2008, said the debate “definitely left me leaning more toward Romney.” Copywriter Terri Grenier, who backed John McCain in 2008, was impressed by Romney, who “came off like a man who really wanted the job — aggressive, but polite.”

Homemaker and former nurse scheduler Jessica Hall, also 35, and a McCain voter, said of Obama in the debate: “I was so disappointed in his performance,” adding that the incumbent was “not prepared for how aggressive Mitt Romney was going to be.” Then came this dagger: “I expected him to be a lot stronger than he was.”

Americans will elect and tolerate presidents who are not charming or brilliant or original. But any national candidate who is judged to be not strong will suffer rejection. Any impression of weakness, rather than charges of apathy or arrogance, would be the most damaging fallout from Obama’s loss in the first debate.

This focus group, held just one night before the year’s only vice presidential debate — when Vice President Joe Biden would establish that the 2012 Democratic ticket was not entirely a passion-free zone — indicated that among these undecided Ohioans, one big debate win did not correct Romney’s problems with the voters.

Asked for a word or phrase to describe Romney, Mike Larger chose “master of the universe ... (who) strikes me as the kind of guy at the top of the company who shakes your hand and then says, ‘We have to get rid of this guy.’”

Fifth-grade teacher at a Christian school, Khadine Byers, 40, “sometimes feels that Romney is out-of-touch (when) he said that $250,000 a year is middle class.”

What kind of a neighbor would Romney be? According to homemaker Catherine Allen, 59, “He would outsource the neighborhood.”

Asked what Romney would have to do to win her vote, Hall did not hesitate: “He needs to be more human. I just really feel he’s completely out of touch.”

On a personal level, these voters still seem to be rooting for Obama, whom most of them like, to succeed. Jeff Malesky, 54, a project manager and Kasich-McCain voter, would pick Obama over Romney, Paul Ryan or Biden to be his next-door neighbor, because he admires Obama’s “great family.”

From Columbus: Obama did indeed stumble, but Romney has yet to win their hearts.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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