Ed Crooks, a retired former miner in a John Deere cap and salt-and-pepper mustache, told me he's definitely not voting for Obama. What about Romney, I asked? "That's a scary thought," he said, chuckling. "I believe he's going to cut the coal companies out and shut all the mines down. He thinks they're responsible for people dying."
Crooks wasn't the only one to repeat this talking point about Romney calling coal plants deadly. At first, I had no idea what they were talking about. It turns out Romney, as governor of Massachusetts in 2003, held a press conference in front of a coal-fired power plant. "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people," he said, and then, gesturing at the facility behind him: "That plant, that plant kills people." You can see the footage in an Obama campaign ad that's been airing heavily here. It seems to have made an impression.
"Not One of Us"
The Obama ad is called "Not One of Us," and that was another theme of my conversations with voters about Romney. (It's an insidious title -- can you imagine Romney making an anti-Obama ad called "Not One of Us" without getting shouted down for implicit racism?) Those opposed to Obama cited various reasons, from disappointment to anger to being convinced that he's a Muslim. But the impressions of Romney were remarkably consistent: He's for the rich.
"I think Obama's more for the regular working-class people, and Romney's for the big business and the well-to-do," said Eric Burkhead, the road and cemetery superintendent for Kirkwood Township, working on a truck in the gravel driveway of the local garage. The 66-year-old didn't like what he saw happening with coal and wasn't wild about 'Obamacare,' but he planned to vote for Obama.
I heard it over and over again from Ohioans -- the idea that Romney stands for the wealthy and not for them. Obama's depiction of his rival as an out-of-touch rich guy, which has gotten no little assistance from Romney himself, has made a deep and effective impression with these self-consciously working-class voters.
Burkhead had this to say as well: "Obama wasn't handed a bucket of roses. Thus far, I think he's about done what he can do. It doesn't matter to me if someone's pink, orange, green, blue or yellow if they do their job."
The allusion to race seemed like a pointed one. Plenty of Democrats attribute Obama's struggles in Appalachia to lingering racism, some latent, some not so. The problem for Romney is that he, too, seems alien to many voters here, whether because of his fortune or because of his Mormon faith.
Dale Lude, a 76-year-old farmer and retired union trucker, is a staunch Republican who's thoroughly disgusted with Obama. Lude, who raises cattle not far from where he grew up, outside St. Clairsville, thinks the president has trampled the Constitution and dishonored the nation abroad.
"I think we have a person who is the first black being president, and I think he's allowing a lot of his personal characteristics to show through," Lude told me as he finished his lunch at Schlepp's Family Restaurant, his rough hands protruding from the sleeves of the plaid flannel shirt he wore beneath a pair of denim overalls. "I have never been able to understand where he stands, religion-wise. I don't think he's a Christian, and I think he's leaning toward the Muslim side of things."
Lude will vote for Romney, but with more suspicion than enthusiasm. Among other things, he said, speaking in a careful passive voice, "It seems there's a certain amount of opposition to the Mormon faith, and that's a problem for him."
Romney's Missed Opportunity
Darrel Johnson is a military veteran who voted for John McCain in 2008. He doesn't think Obama is doing his job. But everything the 40-year-old has heard about Romney has turned him off. He's now pretty sure he'll vote for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.
For Romney to win this election, he needed to hang onto the voters McCain won four years ago, then convert just a small percentage of disaffected former Obama supporters. A few months ago, this didn't seem like a tall order. It was hard to imagine anyone who voted against Obama in his landslide year -- when antagonism to President Bush was at its height, and all the momentum was behind Obama's lofty promise of hope and change -- turning around and supporting the president now that his image has been dented by four rough and unhopeful years. Obama, for his part, would have to stake his strategy on writing off the voters he lost four years ago, replacing them with new members of the electorate, particularly young and Hispanic citizens who'd never voted before.
But if Romney actually starts to lose McCain voters, he's in big trouble. That would explain his suddenly slipping margins in swing states: not just 10 points in Ohio, but 9 points in Florida and 8 points in Virginia.
Darrel Johnson isn't switching from McCain to Obama, but some Ohio voters are: In the recent poll conducted by The Columbus Dispatch, 5 percent of McCain's 2008 supporters were voting for Obama, and another 5 percent were undecided. A 70-year-old Cincinnatian named Wayne Butterfass told the paper he had voted Republican most of his life, but couldn't bring himself to do so this year.
It is far too soon to write Romney's obituary in Ohio or anywhere else, with a month still left in the campaign and the debates yet to begin. But Romney's route to victory has always gone through the white, working-class regions that regard Obama with distrust. If he's not making the sale here, where is he going to make it?