Fate of the Presidency hinges on state where rustbelt meets hi-tech

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The Independent US

From sleek, loft-style offices in central Cleveland, Dan Rose and Brian Powers have a 180-degree view of the downtown whose revival their new-tech company is helping to spur.

From sleek, loft-style offices in central Cleveland, Dan Rose and Brian Powers have a 180-degree view of the downtown whose revival their new-tech company is helping to spur.

Futurenext's imminent expansion across the hall will extend their view round the block, to the solid brick high-rises that embodied the old wealth of Rockefellers and oil, and the glistening new skyscrapers of the services and telecommunications sectors fuelling what the city's fathers hope will be a lasting comeback.

Were they half a dozen floors higher, Mr Rose and Mr Powers might see past the restored warehouses north to the matt blue of Lake Erie, and Canada. To the south, they could catch just the hint of the redundant smokestacks and foundries that once made the city such a powerhouse.

Beyond these, lies a patchwork of alternately neglected and manicured suburbs almost as racially separate as those in Detroit or Chicago. Beyond them - far beyond - the rolling farmland of central and south Ohio. This is the battleground state, where new tech meets old, where North meets South, where industrial heartland gives way to the Midwestern prairie, and where the East Coast pioneers broke their trek out West, and sometimes stayed. With a geographic, social and economic mix that mirrors the nation, Ohio is the bellwether state par excellence.

In years when the race for the presidency is close, as it is this year, the race in Ohio is one of the closest. This year, it is second only to Florida in the clout it wields in the electoral college, and the flypaper gap between Vice-President Al Gore and the Texas Governor, George W Bush.

But where Florida, with its 25 electoral college votes and large pensioner constituency, is now inclining - contrary to forecasts - to Mr Gore, Ohio, with its 21 electoral college votes, is sticking with Mr Bush, if only by a couple of points.

Ohio has a Republican governor, two Republican senators and its state legislature is dominated by Republicans. But this does not mean Mr Bush can count on Ohio, although he badly needs it. When electing the President, Ohio's voters are more fickle; more often than not, it picks the winner.

The 20-point lead Mr Bush enjoyed six weeks ago has been sliced; polls show him only two to four points ahead. And while a few Democrats have won the White House without winning Ohio - John F Kennedy in 1960 was one - no Republican has.

All four candidates, their wives, running mates or congressional surrogates, have visited at least twice in the past two weeks, often at short notice when polling suggests there is ground to be won.

Here, the trade union movement is a greater force than in many states. Although the decline of heavy industry, especially steel, has brought a membership decline, from 33 per cent of voters 40 years ago to barely 12 per cent, it still wields a formidable ability to mobilise. And in a state where winning hearts and minds comes second to getting out the vote, organised labour is a force not to be underestimated.

Executives of Futurenext illustrate some of the tensions. Fit, energetic, under-forty-something new millionaires, Dan Rose and Brian Powers are as different as they are alike. Mr Rose is outgoing and rambunctious, Mr Powers more contemplative and reserved. And their votes were likely to cancel each other out. Mr Rose is into entrepreneurship and business-friendly tax-breaks.

"As a business-owner, a tax-payer and entrepreneur, I think the Republicans or more kind to my ilk," he says.

Mr Powers is a straight-down-the-line Democrat with a New Age tinge. "I'm a Gore man, always a Democrat," he says. He is happy with the turn the local economy has taken in the Clinton years. "Cleveland is growing for the first time since the Great Depression," he says. But he is bothered by the number of people left behind by the boom and sees a role for government and taxes in doing something about it.

That the heads of so go-ahead a company could hold such opposite political views says something about the development of Cleveland and something about the political complexion of Ohio.

Futurenext produces marketing software that links the old and new economies, and sees little threat from the recent failures in the new-tech sector. The secret of Ohio, says Hunter Morrison, Cleveland's long-time city planner, is that its political balance and its place at the crossroads of America "makes Republicans more moderate and Democrats more reasonable".