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The Globe and Mail

Ohio tips toward Obama despite rising tide of evangelicals

Supporters of President Barack Obama watch as elections results trickle in at a campaign office in Wooster, Ohio Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ohioans are proud to be the centre of attention in the race for the U.S. presidency; none more than those in this small city in the heart of the state.

Before the votes were counted, the hundred or so volunteers in the campaign for President Barack Obama, clustered in the garage of their party's headquarters waiting to party, knew it was a long shot for their candidate to win Wayne County, which includes Wooster.

"This county always votes Republican," said a frustrated Leanne Deibel, a first-grade teacher and Obama volunteer.

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But by the end of the night, the key state tipped for Mr. Obama by a narrow margin.

In the city of Wooster itself, the President did well, but in the neighbouring rural areas, Mitt Romney's voters were the majority.

The folks at the Democrats' headquarters knew that every vote they turned out for Mr. Obama in Wooster made the pivotal state of Ohio more difficult for the Republican to win.

The hardest group for the Democrats to penetrate was also the fastest growing community in this area: white evangelical Christians.

"This is a pretty church-going community," said Eric Moscowitz, a professor of political science at the liberal-arts College of Wooster. "It's really part of the Bible Belt."

This becomes clear on the outskirts of the city when you pass an old oil rig on which a large cross has been erected.

In offices just a block apart, the Obama and Romney camps have been working since the spring to mobilize hundreds of volunteers to identify and get out their vote.

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Wooster is a pretty 200-year-old community with that anomalous American blend: a place where natural-food lovers meet the National Rifle Association.

"Guns are the third rail here," said a very liberal Democrat campaigning for Mr. Obama. "You don't touch the subject." Having said that, the volunteer still tries to persuade some of his skeptical contacts to support a man many here view as a communist.

Sitting at the counter of the Muddy Waters Café, Matthew Keating, a 30-something preacher with a beard and pony-tail, describes the President as a godless man. "I'm voting Libertarian," Mr. Keating said. "Both these men make me sick," he added.

"If I was forced to, I'd vote for Romney – at least he's god-fearing," said Mr. Keating, referring to the Republican candidate's Mormon faith.

Mr. Keating's evangelical church has yet to be built but, dedicated to reducing the influence of government, he says he's already gathering a flock.

There is no shortage of religious choice in Wooster, even if political options are limited. Mr. Keating's nascent following must compete with an enormous new Gospel Temple on the edge of the city, as well as a large established Catholic church, St. Mary, which sits near the Presbyterian-founded College of Wooster.

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The temple is believed to house mostly Republicans, while St. Mary, traditionally home to Democrats, saw its priest this week urge parishioners to vote against the President and his health-care program (it covers the cost of contraceptives). The college of about 2,000 students and faculty is politically mixed, as is the city's synagogue, where a shrinking congregation holds services only every second week.

The lesson is clear for Mr. Obama and those other after him: To win Ohio, you must capture at least a share of this rising tide of white evangelical Christians.

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