DAYTON, Ohio -- Kelly McCoy, a 40-year-old single mother of two, lives in a low-income neighborhood here. As she browses the aisles of Deals, a thrift shop in a strip mall that houses mostly discount stores, McCoy chats about the election. She's voted for Republicans and Democrats in the past and has yet to decide who to vote for in November.
Glancing through instant food packages priced at $1 each, McCoy says she is disabled and unable to work, and receives government assistance through Medicaid and food stamps. She voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and had been thinking of voting for Republican Mitt Romney who, according to her, “has the right ideas.” But over the summer, she came to believe that Romney just doesn’t seem to support the role of the government assistance programs that she and her children rely on.
Following the first presidential debate last week in Denver, McCoy would seem to be the very type of voter (undecided but leaning Republican) who would have gravitated back toward the GOP ticket. Instead, she declares: “I’m leaning toward Obama, because he is more towards helping out.”
“If you look at Obama, Obama has always been for people like me. I don’t have a lot of money, and he’s always been about reaching out to everyone," she says.
The two remaining presidential debates may still affect McCoy's vote. But the fact that she hasn't abandoned the president, even after his flat performance in Denver, suggests that Obama's appeal in swing states may be more enduring than it is nationally. It also illustrates the difficult task that Romney faces in convincing voters he's neither the candidate from the days of the GOP primary nor the Romney portrayed by the opposition.
“I do feel like Romney is realizing that he didn’t reach out to people before, but I don’t know if he’s genuinely trying to correct a mistake or if he’s just trying to court voters," McCoy concludes.
With 26 days before the election, the task facing Romney is in exuding a compassion that comes across as genuine and not simply a last-minute effort to woo voters. Polls after the debate show he did just that, getting a bump as well as sharp improvements in his favorability rating. But in state polls, the bump has been smaller.
Ohio in particular has proved stubborn for the Republican nominee. Interviews with people around the Dayton area after the Denver debate show why.
Billy Barker, a brick mason from Cleveland who has no party affiliation, is on a 10-minute break from a construction project in the parking lot outside of the Dayton Mall when he says he’s decided to vote for Obama.
“I just feel that he’s more for the middle class and he’s keeping things down to earth,” Barker says, as he deposits $1.25 into a vending machine for a bag of potato chips at what for most people would be lunch hour. “I’m worried about where Mitt Romney’s change is going to go.”
Barker says he doesn't buy Romney's recent bid to reach out to the middle class. “I feel like his compassion is misguided,” he says, adding that the GOP candidate’s attitude seems “favorable toward the wealthy.”
The middle-class messaging war is especially crucial to Ohio -- a large manufacturing state, rebounding from the tough hits from imports and the recession. Obama's message has been tailor-made for the Buckeye State, honing in on the rescue of the automobile industry. The Obama team moved to make gains quickly, opening more than 100 offices and urging supporters to vote early.
Eighteen electoral votes are at stake. And should Obama win those, he would need -- more or less -- just a combination of two more swing states or a win in Florida to earn a second term.
The Romney campaign has gone to great lengths to move Ohio into the Republican column. Despite the efforts, it's been difficult to sell Romney's newfound compassionate disposition.
Don Williams, a 57-year-old medical assistant, is hesitant to back Obama because of what she calls a “disappointing” four years in office, capped by a lackluster debate showing. But because the president has a better understanding of the average American person, she will likely support him come Election Day.
Romney "doesn't quite get it," Williams says, pointing to Romney's comments about 47 percent of Americans that revealed a lack of understanding about the struggles faced by those who depend on the government.
Williams shares the story of her husband, who relied on disability for nearly a decade before he died. “He lived on government [assistance], but every opportunity that he had to get a job, he would work,” she says, emphasizing the word “work” to disagree with Romney’s statement that he would never be able to persuade the 47 percent to “take responsibility for their lives.”
“A lot of people do want to work, but you also have to make a livable wage,” Williams says.
Romney's 47 percent comments remain a huge hindrance for his Ohio comeback. Of 50 people surveyed across Dayton, 48 told The Huffington Post they had either seen or heard the tape of Romney describing nearly half of Americans as government-dependent “victims” who will vote for Obama because they “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it." Only one woman, a Romney supporter, said she agreed with the GOP nominee’s remarks.
Romney himself has clearly recognized the damage. After weeks of insisting that the comments were “not elegantly stated," he declared, the day after the debate, that they were "completely wrong." Ads released by his campaign in recent weeks have touted Romney's concern for all Americans and his plan to help the middle class. Some feature Romney speaking directly into the camera, making an appeal to the Americans who continue to struggle and are living “paycheck to paycheck.” The most recent spot uses one of his opponent’s biggest attack lines against him, arguing that it is Obama whose policies have crushed the middle class and would continue to do so if the president is given another term.
But Romney's change in approach may have come too late, with voters not wholly convinced that it's sincere. Ron Wimmers, a retired resident of Dayton, observes that "there’s ample evidence that he has migrated in many different directions."
"I'm very much a believer in shared sacrifice," says Wimmers, who plans to vote for Obama, but has voted for candidates from both parties in the past. "I would say that [Romney's] concern lies with the upper class -- with the more fortunate. He realizes that he has to moderate himself somewhat to bring as many people as possible into his fold, and I don’t believe he’s being sincere in that concern."
The comments about the 47 percent, Wimmers says, "solidify where his concerns lie."
Even those in favor of a Romney presidency say they worry that his recent show of compassion won't be enough.
"My parents, who are staunch Republicans, and myself, think he didn’t reach out to the middle class soon enough," says Emily Myers, a stay-at-home mom. "He seems compassionate depending on what the subject is. I'm hoping people believe him now, because we need a new president."
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