NEWARK, Ohio - Tom Anderson's forehead wrinkled in concentration yesterday as he sat stiffly on the edge of a stool on Mark and Debbie Bickle's front lawn, listening to John Kerry's words about jobs and the economy as if his livelihood depended on it.
Laid off two weeks ago from a front-office job at one of Ohio's largest homegrown private employers, Anderson, 45, was eager to hear what a Kerry White House would do to remedy prospects in the state with the nation's third-worst job market.
A pitch for jobs
"It's not just blue-collar workers who are affected by the economy," Anderson told Kerry, recounting his family's struggles to obtain health insurance for his disabled son, while Anderson's father works past retirement to preserve health care coverage for his wife.
The Democratic presidential candidate commiserated with Anderson and others like him in this suburb of Columbus, Ohio, marooned by the sluggish national economy and a burst of downsizing around the state.
Kerry's pledge to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, broaden health care coverage, lower prescription drug costs and provide incentives for U.S. employers to keep their best jobs at home drew an enthusiastic response from a "front-porch" gathering of roughly 75 people here.
"I think Tom would agree with me: There are no guarantees," Kerry said to the residents gathered outside the Bickles' trim yellow rancher. "But we can be smart about how we create the jobs in this country."
At the Bickles', and at a huge rally outside town hall later in the day, Kerry pointed to new Labor Department figures, which showed a modest increase in job creation last month, as an example of what he called President Bush's "record of failure."
"I don't think this is something to celebrate; I think it's something to get to work on," the candidate said to nods and applause.
Kerry plunged back into fierce campaign mode Thursday night after Bush accepted his party's presidential nomination at the convention in New York. His message seemed tailored to court voters like Anderson, for whom unemployment rates have become suddenly personal, despite Bush's insistence that the economy is well on its way toward a strong recovery.
Counting the days
"We are about 60 days away from this choice," Kerry said at the rally in Newark's main square. "You got people over there who want four more years of bigger deficits, war in Iraq, people losing their jobs. If you think you're better off now than four years ago, you go vote for George Bush. But if you believe we can do better and put this country on the right track, we want you to join us in the next 60 days."
At the rally, a crowd of several thousand chanted in reply, "Three more months," capping the second day of Kerry's three-day Ohio bus tour.
Since mid-February, Kerry has spent 24 days in this state, more time than in any other battleground state. Campaign strategists are mindful of Ohio's history: No Republican has won the presidency without capturing this state. Moreover, in the past century, only two Democrats -Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 - have been elected without carrying Ohio.
With recent state polls reflecting a near-deadlock, the Kerry team believes every front porch visited here could make the difference on Nov. 2.
Ohio has weathered the nation's third-highest number of job losses since early 2001. Small towns like Springfield, site of Thursday night's rally, and Newark, where Kerry spent most of yesterday, are among the hardest hit, said John Kessel, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
"You have a traditional concern over jobs here, augmented with the fact that Ohio has lost jobs in the recent past," Kessel said.
Newark is the county seat of Licking County, where one in every 19 workers is unemployed. That unemployment picture could worsen next week, when Longaberger Co., Anderson's former employer, has warned it will lay off nearly 800 more employees.
The Newark-based manufacturer of handmade decorative baskets employed about 8,000 in sales in 2001. The sagging economy has already prompted Longaberger to slash its salaried work force by 21 percent over the past two years.
Anderson, who spent four years as director of finance at the company's headquarters, lost his position in a restructuring last month. His job search, he said, might require relocating his family, though he told Kerry that he dreams of starting a small business in Newark.
Throughout the tour, Kerry declared that Bush had failed the state during his presidency, by under-funding the "No Child Left Behind" education law for next year in Ohio by $229 million and by overstating job creation in the state over the past three years by nearly 500,000.
Facing the crowd outside Newark City Hall, Kerry mocked this month's jobs figures, released yesterday. While the 144,000 jobs that were added nationwide last month reflected an improvement, the overall pace of job recovery remains sluggish.
"At that rate, you won't have a net new job created in this state until 2011," Kerry said.