CINCINNATI (Reuters) - With the economy in crisis, voter after voter in the U.S. heartland says race is not a factor in their choice for president. But everyone, it seems, knows someone else who will base their vote on skin color.
“It doesn’t matter to me ... but my husband wouldn’t have voted for a black man,” confided retired factory worker Myrtle Campbell, 67, as she waited to get into a rally for Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in central Ohio.
Fifty miles to the south in St. Bernard, Ohio, assistant high school principal John Estep assured a door-to-door canvasser that he’d vote for Democrat Barack Obama in the November 4 presidential election. But he won’t put up an Obama lawn sign to show his support.
“People would egg my house,” said Estep, 59. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘You would want a black president?’ I say I want a good president.”
While the issue of race has mostly been an undercurrent in the contest between Republican John McCain and Democrat Obama, concerns about racism have risen as Obama pulls ahead in polls and Americans realize they may be on the brink of electing the nation’s first black president.
McCain, an Arizona senator, spoke up on the weekend to defend Illinois Sen. Obama as a “decent family man” after supporters at rallies called Obama an Arab, a Muslim, a traitor or terrorist -- inaccurate descriptions that some critics see as coded attacks on his race.
Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, tackled the issue head-on as he crisscrossed the state with Obama in recent days, calling the discomfort felt by some working-class whites with a electing a black president the “elephant in the room.”
Strickland, who grew up in predominantly white rural Appalachia, told voters he understood that many of them did not have friends or neighbors who were black. But he believes pocketbook concerns will outweigh racial worries in November.
“Every day it is clearer that with the serious economic issues confronting us today, Ohioans are not concerned with issues like the color of someone’s skin or where they grew up,” Strickland said in an e-mailed statement.
With 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidential election, Ohio is a central front in this year’s campaign and was the state that secured Republican President George W. Bush his 2004 re-election victory.
Ohio may also be a bellwether for several other politically divided states in middle America, where voters tend to be a little suspicious of change and not yet won over by charismatic Obama, who has been embraced by voters in solidly Democratic states on the east and west coasts of the United States.
“Obama for a lot of people represents the unknown and it’s not just racism,” said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, a Midwestern state.
“There are some people who won’t vote for him because of his race but ... there are policy and experience issues that you can take Obama to task on. You can’t dismiss all criticism of him as racial,” said Goldford.
Barbara Geier, a 38-year-old pharmacist from Dayton, said she opposes Obama because she believes he is against gun ownership. He is not, but has advocated tighter controls.
But as she and her two small children waited to get into a Palin rally near Wilmington, Ohio, her daughter whispered into her mom’s ear another reason to oppose Obama.
“She said, ‘Don’t forget Obama hangs out with terrorists,'” her brother supplied helpfully. The girl laughed. Geier, wearing a “Proud to be an American” T-shirt, admitted she was concerned about Obama’s circle of friends.
“He has had affiliations with people in the past who have had affiliations with terrorism,” said Geier. She couldn’t remember who the people were, however. “I‘m bad with names.”
Jonathon Vogt, 23, has been going door to door in Ohio for more than a year to encourage people to vote Democrat. As an assistant canvass director for Working America, a union-backed group, Vogt shrugs off the few racist things he hears when people answer his knock.
“This is America, and racism is definitely still in the country. But I’d say that’s a very, very small minority,” said Vogt. “The most common reason people say they won’t vote for Obama is inexperience.”
But after Vogt leaves the doorstep of Obama supporter Angela Lovett, Lovett said she’s heard racism first-hand.
“I’ve heard it in a place of business and a co-worker said something,” said Lovett, who is black. But Lovett believes race can cut both ways in the election, with some voting for Obama because he is black.
The idea that Obama will take power on a wave of support from African Americans, who make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, is what McCain supporter David Leppla fears.
“Mostly African Americans will be leaning toward Obama,” said Leppla, 23, who works nights sorting mail trucks near Wilmington, Ohio. “That’s what worries me.”
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Doina Chiacu