The surburban nightmare that haunts McCain

Republican candidate faces middle-class backlash in crucial swing state of Ohio

Inside the grotto of chilled bouquets and teddy bears that is her flower shop in Strongsville, Ohio, Mai Ly is preparing for what should be a half-decent weekend. Sunday is "Sweetest Day" in this state, a pale Valentine's in the autumn. Times are tough but with luck her roses will be flying out of their plastic pails.

A few steps from the flower shop, Mary Ann Zanders has stepped outside McCarthy's Ale House to light just one more cigarette. The weekend holds no particular promise for her. In short order, she has lost her husband, her business – she used to own the bar – and her home.

Leslie Sedblock and Melinda Plescovic, eating dinner inside the Ale House, at least have secure jobs; they teach in the local school. But there is no ignoring the stress felt by their co-workers and the kids' families. There is a bigger turnover of children in their classes than they have ever seen before as families are displaced by disappearing jobs.

Different stories from four different women but with common strands. All live or work in what has long ranked as one of the most prosperous suburbs of Cleveland. The flower shop and the ale house are a stone's throw from a rectangle of grass that passes as a village green, a pretty white bandstand at its centre. There are no parades of boarded-up shops here. It's territory that should be friendly to John McCain. Indeed, just a week ago he held a rally here in Strongsville, with Sarah Palin at his side. As this election nears its climax, the tilt of Ohio, a crucial swing state, is being watched as never before. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning this state. Also under the gaze of strategists and pollsters are precisely places like Strongsville. As before, this election may be won or lost in the suburbs.

It is misleading to read too much into a handful of random interviews. But even if they are merely anecdotal, Mr McCain should worry. All of these Strongsville women voted for George Bush last time. Three of them voted for him twice. (Mrs Ly didn't vote for anyone in 2000). But when 4 November comes around, not one of them expects to vote for Mr McCain. And mostly it's about the economy.

Peeling the outer petals from white roses so they look their freshest, Ms Ly, 46, says her business stays afloat because she buys roses in bulk and sells them cheap – $9.99 (£5.75) for a dozen. She might seem perky, but it is a bit of an illusion. "A year ago, I might have said I was optimistic but right now I don't think anyone can say that," she says. "I don't know of anyone who could be doing worse than they are right now."

Most telling, she adds, has been a change in how weddings are planned. Engagements last two or three years. "They need more time to get the money together," she says.

At their table at McCarthy's, Melinda notes flatly that "change would be a good thing" and right on cue, Leslie says, "Amen". "Mr Obama just seems like a person who is sincere," Melinda says. As for losing those kids from her class, she notes: "It used to that families moved because they got promotions and maybe were moving to a big city. Now it's because they don't have work and can't find any."

Sitting on a bench looking at the empty car park outside the bar, Mary Ann, 55, bows her head almost into her lap, the grey showing through the cheap dye-job of her hair, when asked who she voted for last time.

It is as if admitting that she supported Bush twice gives her physical pain. "I have gone from here to here," she says raising her right hand high in the air before dropping it almost the ground. No one would want the privilege but Ms Zanders could indeed be a poster child for the tragedy that is this economic crisis for ordinary Americans, who feel crushed by what they face.

Once, she belonged to the prosperous middle class, until the economy "did her in". All this in eight years: in 2000, she and her husband took out a second mortgage on their home – swimming pool and all – to help him invest in other properties for rent. When he was laid off from his job in a fibreglass plant, they bought the bar. That was in 2003. The following year, he died of a heart attack. "I started losing money at the bar at the end of 2006 and into 2007," she says. "You just carry on thinking it will rebound but it never did. Then early this year it got down to this, 'Do you keep the bar going or do you pay your mortgage?' Well, it got to the point where I couldn't do either."

Ohio has the third-highest repossession rate in the US and the worst of it has been here in Cuyahoga County, though mostly inside Cleveland itself. But slowly, the contagion spread into the suburbs, even the nicest of them. The bank foreclosed on Mary Ann in March; she lost McCarthy's in April.

After moving to a motel, she eventually found an apartment. Benefits and money from a tiny sliver of savings means she has about $700 a month to survive, of which $500 goes to rent. She has no health insurance, of course. What would happen were Mary Ann to get ill? "You tell me," she says, for a moment seeming to hide the cigarette in her fingers.

It is not the absence of healthcare or the frustration of trying to find work that makes her eyes well up. It is the thought of the house she lived in for 15 years still sitting empty six months after the bank seized it. "I have had a cry today, so please don't make me go again," she pleads. How did it all go so wrong? "I blame Bush, that's who I blame." And it is Mr Obama who will get her support.

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