CLEVELAND, Ohio - John McCain sees a plumber named Joe as the Everyman of 2008, but another ordinary Ohioan may better reflect the reality of next week's election.
Like millions of others, Brandie Adams, a mother of two from the Cleveland suburb of Eastlake, is caught in the downdraft of a tumbling economy. Her husband, Brian, laid off after 19 years with the Sherwin-Williams Co., had to relocate to Lanham, Md., where he lives alone in an apartment. Her mother-in-law, unable to pay the rent, just moved in with the family, and after falling into the Medicare doughnut hole, might need help with her prescription drug bills.
The views of the 32-year-old part-time bookkeeper and nursing school student, who is leaning toward Democrat Barack Obama, help illuminate the final days of a presidential contest playing out against a backdrop of falling financial markets and deep fears of recession.
Adams says her vote is still up for grabs and that Obama's lack of national experience troubles her. She worries about "chaos" in Washington unless he surrounds himself with seasoned advisers.
Obama, who launched his closing drive yesterday in Canton, Ohio, has gained as pocketbook concerns have dominated the '08 debate. However, the forgotten topic of Iraq and social issues such as abortion were among those that popped up as a dozen largely persuadable voters, including Adams, offered a subdued outlook on the country's future and uncertainty about the candidates during a recent two-hour discussion.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who led the group, said afterward that pundit predictions "like 'in the bag,' 'over,' and 'done deal' seem premature for Ohio. Depending on turnout and events, this swing state is still open."
Four years ago, President Bush's 2-point margin over Democrat John Kerry in this closely divided state proved decisive in the national election. No Republican, dating back to the 1800s, has won the presidency without prevailing here. McCain told a rally crowd in Dayton yesterday that he's running behind and that he cannot win without carrying Ohio.
Obama has carved out alternate routes to victory through his big advantage in money and campaign organization. He is leading in three states that Bush carried last time - Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado - with enough combined electoral votes to offset a loss in Ohio.
Eric Rademacher, who directs the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research, said polls indicate that as many as one in seven Ohio voters could change their minds. That group is evenly divided between the candidates and concentrated among those between the ages of 18 and 45, a group that generally favors Obama by a wide margin.
"The key question is whether or not the younger voters turn out," he said. "Right now, we're not seeing that." Obama led McCain in Ohio by 49 percent to 46 percent in Rademacher's most recent statewide survey, released over the weekend.
For some voters who haven't made a final decision, like those who gathered Sunday afternoon to discuss the campaign, Ohio's economic changes seem to have deepened a downbeat mood.
In a windowless room on the outskirts of Cleveland, they used phrases such as "down the tubes" to describe the direction of the country. One man who expressed a more upbeat view acknowledged that he was just trying to be optimistic about the nation's "probably unprecedented" economic plight.
All of those in the discussion group, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, live in Lake County, a largely white, working-class area that has been a bellwether in the past three presidential elections.
Hillary Clinton carried Lake County on her way to defeating Obama in the Ohio primary. Among her supporters was Cookie Lo Schiavo, 62, legal secretary for many years now employed as a nanny.
Lo Schiavo exemplifies those who tell pollsters that they are undecided but who seem unlikely to vote for Obama, Hart said in a post-session analysis.
Lo Schiavo said that she has voted Democratic for 40 years, and would seem to fit the profile of an Obama voter. Her college-educated husband has lost his job and is now working for $8.50 an hour, and she is enthusiastic about Joe Biden, whom she wishes were at the top of the ticket.
But when members of the group are asked which of the four candidates for president or vice president they would not want to sit next to on a plane, she is the only one to mention Obama.
"I don't trust him," she said, calling Obama "theatrical" and "too perfect" and explaining her reservations as a "gut feeling."
Gretchen Eckford, 41, a single mother wearing a Cleveland Indians pullover, voted for Bush in the last two elections and considers herself an independent. The weekly churchgoer and manager of a retail store might be considered a likely McCain vote, but she said the senator's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate "turned me off."
Eckford is leaning toward Obama because "it's time for a new, fresh person to get in there." She's concerned about his inexperience but says her biggest reservation is "that he won't follow through on some of things he's trying to sell."
The mother of a racially mixed daughter sees older whites as particularly resistant to Obama.
Some whites might say they're for Obama, but "when they go to vote, they'll change their mind," said Eckford, who says she's felt the sting of those who "smile to my face" but are hateful "behind my back."
Ralph Chetnik, 63, a retired firefighter and Vietnam veteran, voted for George Wallace and Ross Perot. He's feeling the pinch of the economic downturn but worries about giving Democrats too much power.
Along with others, he's unhappy with both candidates for offering scant details about what they would do as president, including their plans for extricating U.S. forces from Iraq and dealing with immigration. He's leaning toward McCain, he says, to provide "checks and balances" on the Democratic Congress, mirroring one of the Republican ticket's main closing arguments.
McCain warned yesterday that total control by Democrats in Washington would lead to higher taxes blessed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"Can you imagine an Obama-Pelosi-Reid combination?" McCain asked his Dayton audience.
Among uncommitted voters here, there seemed to be strikingly little expectation that a new president would produce the sort of turnaround that Obama and McCain are promising. Asked how they'd feel the morning after the election if their candidate won, the Ohioans responded with, at best, cautious optimism.
"There's going to so many things that have to be addressed, the decisions that have to be made," said Adams. "It'll be hard for anybody."