MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — Retired steelworker Claude Cunningham strides into the John McCain campaign office on Main Street and asks for yard signs.
"I don't know if anybody around here will vote for Obama or not. But I know the answer won't be me," he says, chuckling while loading up his burly arms. "He's a joke."
Down the block, a former co-worker, John Franklin, scans his list of registered voters, punches in a phone number, then says softly, "Hello, I'm a volunteer at the Barack Obama for president headquarters in Middletown."
During a break between calls, Franklin, a 30-year steel mill worker who took early retirement during a lengthy lockout, explains: "It's the economy. We need a change from this."
Their very different takes on the presidential race aside, both men in this aptly named heartland city of some 51,000 people are on the front lines in a battleground state. With the U.S. economy worsening from the credit crunch, the housing slump and job cuts, both candidates have been aiming final appeals toward the middle class.
"Which candidate does a better job understanding the middle class, offering programs and plans that would benefit those citizens, that's really what this campaign is about at this stage," said Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political scientist.
That's why Obama convened a "jobs summit" in Florida and why McCain warned voters in Colorado that Obama would put the middle class "through the wringer." It's why Obama calls his economic proposals "a rescue plan for the middle class" and why McCain has virtually made "Joe the Plumber" part of his ticket, representing workers with a middle-class dream of being their own boss but worried that Obama's tax plan would make it more difficult.
Obama says he'll cut taxes for the middle class and create millions of jobs through renewable energy and infrastructure projects. McCain says he wants to keep taxes down for everyone, including the rich and businesses, to stimulate overall economic growth to the benefit of what he called "the great American middle class."
The middle class is hardly a monolithic voting bloc, though, divided by race, religion and a variety of issues such as abortion, Asher notes. There's not even a standard definition of middle class, which by income is considered as a wide range of annual household earnings from more than $30,000 to the low six figures, ranging higher or lower depending on the local cost of living.
However, most Americans identify themselves as middle class. It's sometimes described as a state of mind, one of a comfortable life with such attributes as a nice home, late-model car, education opportunities for children, and security. For many, that comfort level is being rocked by the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
"I wonder about the future for the country as far as the middle class," said Lex Higgins, a business professor emeritus for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He said the middle class in his western state, one that Obama appears to have a good chance of winning after President Bush carried it twice, has been eroded by the loss of high-tech jobs that moved overseas and by the housing crisis.
"I think it's basically the vote of Colorado," Higgins said of the middle class. "That's where the election will be decided."
Ohio has been hard hit by the decline of U.S. automaking and other industries, losing nearly 250,000 factory jobs in this decade. Middletown, a largely blue-collar community along the Great Miami River and Interstate 75 in southwest Ohio, reflects the struggling statewide economic picture after cutbacks by its longtime major employer, AK Steel, which last year moved its corporate headquarters to suburban Cincinnati.
Doug Miller of nearby Franklin took a General Motors Corp. buyout nine years ago, when he was 53. He says rising gas prices and other cost of living increases have bitten into his household budget: "I don't get any raises anymore."
His son-in-law's GM job will end in December when a plant closes in Moraine.
"We've got a lot of kids and grandkids, and their future is on our minds," said his wife, Sharon. "We're worried."
They plan to vote for Obama.
However, Scott Rose, 36, a cable contractor, and his wife, Danielle, 34, a paralegal, will vote for McCain. Their vote is based on religious values they believe McCain shares and skepticism about whether Obama could turn the economy around.
"McCain has a lot of experience," Rose said. "I think some people are looking for a quick fix."
In the Toledo area, home of Joe Wurzelbacher, the plumber who challenged Obama's tax policies, Al Antoine owns a small machine shop he bought from his boss nearly two decades ago.
"Business isn't what it used to be," said Antoine, who has five employees. He's leaning toward McCain, sharing Joe's concern about taxes.
Associated Press exit polls four years ago found that Bush won by a comfortable margin nationally and in Ohio among those making more than $50,000, negating Democrat John Kerry's advantage with lower-income families. The president narrowly won the 20 Ohio electoral votes that clinched his re-election.
Polls indicate Ohio, pivotal to McCain's chances, is again neck and neck.
Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.