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Associated Press 2008: Democrats target Ohio GOP suburban stronghold

Democrats target Ohio GOP suburban stronghold

EDITOR'S NOTE — What makes Ohio, the nation's seventh-largest state, a swing state? One in a series of regular stories profiling regions of Ohio and swing areas within the state.

Associated Press Writer

UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio (AP) — Democrats' display of support for John Kerry four years ago in this Republican stronghold ruffled more than a few community feathers.

Despite the efforts of the group UA for Kerry, President Bush beat his opponent handily. But Kerry also received a record number of votes for a Democrat in a city that just two decades ago was voting for Republican presidential candidates by 4-1 ratios.

Emboldened, the group has its sights set on the unthinkable this presidential election: turning a bright red town blue.

"My goal for Upper Arlington is for Obama to win, to get 51 percent," Melissa Hedden, a group founder, said flatly. "That would be my definition of success."

Ohio's mix of reliably Democratic big cities and just as reliably Republican suburbs has long contributed to the state's ability to predict presidential races so well. No Republican has won the White House without taking Ohio in more than a century and only two Democrats have done so.

But in recent years older suburbs such as Upper Arlington have become swing communities themselves, supporting a more even mix of voters as Democrats move in and some Republican voters settle in new suburbs even farther from city centers.

That's one reason why the "UA for Kerry" yard signs got so much attention. With their implication that Kerry had the entire city's support, they spurred a round of sign stealing and soul searching and invigorated the local Republican Party.

"We had people write checks saying, 'I'm sick of seeing their signs,'" recalled David Varda, treasurer of the Upper Arlington Republican Club and a former mayor.

This city of 31,000 is one of the original suburbs of Columbus and still one of its premier addresses. It's easy to see why, with its large houses, wide avenues and towering shade trees.

"It's a very classic old-school suburban community," said Tim Rankin, a lifelong resident and former city council member now running for the state Legislature. "Bright, astute, affluent."

Upper Arlington boasts three immaculate city pools, a high school with some of the state's highest test scores and public parks so well cared for that on one recent day two workers were carefully washing and sweeping the tennis courts.

The late Gov. Jim Rhodes, the nation's longest-serving governor, called Upper Arlington home. Golf great Jack Nicklaus was born and raised there. Legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes was a resident, as is the team's current coach, Jim Tressel. Ohio State is just around the corner, another selling point.

Per capita income in the overwhelmingly white city is about $42,000, twice the average of the state. Less than 3 percent of the population is below the federal poverty level.

The efforts of Democrats haven't gone unnoticed by Republicans, who in 2006 lost a legislative seat held by a local Republican. Rankin's candidacy is their most visible response, said Doug Preisse, the Franklin County Republican Party chairman.

Both he and Rankin dismiss the notion Upper Arlington will ever vote for Barack Obama. UA for Kerry benefited from a national groundswell of anti-Bush and anti-war sentiment that doesn't exist this time around, Rankin said.

Registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 3,949 to 1,810 before the March primary, with more than 21,000 residents listed as unaffiliated, meaning they had asked for an issues only ballot in the last primary.

Not every Republican in town is so sure about November. Bill Pfeil, 67, a retired football, basketball and baseball coach, has lived in Upper Arlington for 35 years and supports John McCain.

He also believes Upper Arlington could go blue.

Obama's appeal to young voters is strong and people are still very concerned about the economy and the war.

"In this community there's probably a lot of people who are still waiting for Obama to start to make some specifics where people can hang their hats, and say, 'Yeah, this is the change that we're looking for.'"

The Obama campaign said in a statement it's committed to competing in all Ohio communities, including places that have traditionally voted Republican.

The local group is raising money for yard signs and bumper stickers, planning community meetings on topics such as the war and the economy and encouraging its supporters to help the Obama campaign.

Voting trends in the city may be on Obama's side. In 1976, the city gave President Ford 17,217 votes to Jimmy Carter's paltry 4,122. Ronald Reagan twice won by ratios of 4-1.

But by the 1990s, the vote was down to 2-1 in favor of the first President Bush and Bob Dole. Al Gore did even better in 2000, winning 36 percent of the vote — practically a landslide by Upper Arlington standards.

The city likely now has more independents, as people tire of partisan politics, said Priscilla Mead, a Republican and former mayor.

But as Mead also points out, the city likes things the way they are. If it had a motto, she says, it would probably be "No surprises."

In 2007, a proposal to privatize the city-run garbage department was met with rallies, threats of a ballot initiative and cries to oust the city council president.

The behavior of UA for Kerry didn't sit well with some in town either. Among the organization's alleged sins: hosting a yard party along the route of the city's Fourth of July parade, a hallowed event that's supposed to be a politics-free zone.

"You don't want to step outside the boundaries, and we did," said Pat Hadler, another of the group's founders. "We really went against the grain."

Although President Bush won with 57 percent of the vote, Kerry still received 8,152 votes, more than 2,000 more than Gore received just four years earlier.

In 2006, the city supported the losing GOP candidate in the U.S. Senate race but backed Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat. That support could have been an anomaly: Strickland was helped by a statewide wave of anger at Republicans over a corruption scandal.

Since 2004, UA for Kerry has evolved into Upper Arlington Progressive Action, a political action committee boasting a mailing list of 1,600. The group took the "progressive" label in the hopes of converting moderate Republicans to its cause.

The signs have changed to a less provocative "Another UA Citizen for Obama."

"To me it's more about reaching out to people," Hedden said. "We wanted to reach out to those people who might have shied away from confrontation with their neighbors or family members."

The group has come a long way since the day in March 2004 when Hedden followed a woman home who sported an anti-Bush sticker on her SUV, astounded she'd found a fellow Democrat in town. Hedden and her newly discovered ally, Susan Truitt, chatted politics, and Truitt eventually helped organize UA for Kerry.

Hedden is clear that just making a point isn't the goal this year. Forty-nine percent of the vote for Obama won't cut it.

"I want that 51," Hedden said.

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