How will gay marriage play on the ground?

Associated Press Modified: May 14, 2012 at 3:01 am •  Published: May 14, 2012

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (AP) — On the upper eastern edge of Ohio lies a valley built on the sweat of the working class, where steel mills sit mostly shuttered but a once-struggling Chevy plant endures. It is a place filled with union halls and blue-collar families for whom the auto bailout meant survival, delivered by a president many here see as their savior.

The Mahoning Valley is, without question, Barack Obama country. And native Andre Allie is very much a Barack Obama man: An African-American who "went with history" by voting for him in 2008. A retired auto worker who made air-bag parts. A lifelong Democrat and union member whose wife, brothers, aunt, cousins are all Democrats and union folks, too.

But Allie is also a deeply religious man, an elder deacon at his Baptist church who quotes from the Bible with ease. And he fervently opposes what the president last week decided to publicly support. "It's wrong. Period. It's just wrong," Allie, 54, says of the latest issue to push to the front of the presidential campaign.

Obama's declaration in support of gay marriage was undoubtedly a milestone in American politics and culture. But six months from an election that will decide whether the president keeps his job, a question hovers over the moment: Was it, somehow, a game-changer?

In three very different regions of a state where the election could be won or lost, voters themselves have been considering that. And their reflections reveal something far more pragmatic than an electorate that shifts its views because of the headline of the day, no matter how historic.

Allie is but one example, a voter as adamant in his opposition to same-sex marriage as he is in his support — still — of Obama. In his words: "The world is bigger than gay marriage."

And yet something has sprung from the dialogue the president's words compelled. It may be far more subtle than a changed mind or a changed vote, but it is there all the same.

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Among Democrats hungering for inspiration from the man who instilled hope four years ago, you hear talk of newfound respect for a candidate they supported, before this, only halfheartedly. The word "courage" comes up again and again.

"I'm really proud of him," said Margie DeLong, a retired nurse in northern Lake County who plans now to volunteer for the Obama campaign, as she did in 2008.

The Rev. Courtney Jenkins found something else to celebrate in her Mother's Day sermon at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church. Jenkins preaches to a mostly black congregation in Cleveland, where high turnout among African-Americans will be one make-or-break factor for Obama in Ohio. She knows there are those who theologically disagree with his position; she heard as much from one colleague last week. Still, that person told her, "This is the president I've been waiting on. One who will stand up and say: This is what I believe."

Said Jenkins: "I think that's really what voters were looking for. He preached change. We've been waiting on change."

For some Republicans here, the gay marriage comments only reinforced long-held suspicions of, and opposition to, Obama. But more than that, this statement feels like another in-their-face reminder that the country is headed off-track in ways that have nothing to do with job numbers and debt statistics.

"This is the Bible Belt, and we still believe what the Bible says," said Harty Wallingford, a civil engineer in Ohio's Appalachian region. "They can change the Bible in the city, but we won't change it here. We're not like California. They've just gone crazy there."

Will this renewed debate go so far as to be a decider in the state that itself could determine the election? Probably not. Will it dominate the discussion as the campaign goes on? Not likely. This is a place, like much of America, far more concerned about jobs and foreclosures, but also matters such as student loan costs, collective bargaining rights and fair elections laws.

But has gay marriage entered into the dialogue here on the ground? Absolutely. And what we find in those conversations is what we may already know as Americans: That while our families, our pocketbooks and our communities may drive our choices come Election Day, our hearts — whether motivated or alienated — play a part as well.

Just listen to some of the many people talking now all across this bellwether state.

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To the east of Cincinnati, city sprawl turns to rolling hills where farm tractors and cars compete for space on the road. This is rural southern Ohio, the Appalachian region that shares a border with Kentucky and is home to tiny villages dotted with barns and Amish-owned shops. Life really feels a little slower in this place where, to so many, God and family matter more than anything material.

A few days after Obama's comments, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman campaigned across the region with Brad Wenstrup, a Republican candidate in the congressional House district that Portman formerly represented. Portman, whose name has been bandied about as a possible running mate for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, opposes same-sex marriage but doesn't think Obama's statement in support of it changes the paramount issues.

"I mean, what people care about is how are we going to turn this economy around and what do you do with these record debts and deficits."

That's still mostly true in a part of Ohio that can sometimes swing in election years. There are strong Democratic roots in the region but of the "Reagan Democrat" variety, because of views that can lean conservative on both fiscal and cultural issues. Democrat Bill Clinton carried this predominantly white and blue-collar swath of the state both times he ran. But then it became George W. Bush country, and Republican John McCain won over Obama here in 2008.

Paul Hall is the GOP chairman in Brown County, where the double-digit unemployment rate hovers above the national average. He said that while the economy ranks way above gay marriage as an issue, Obama's support of the matter won't help attract votes. "That won't play well here," he said.

Wallingford, the engineer who also serves as head of the Adams County Republican Party, echoes that remark. When Portman and Wenstrup made a stop at the Olde Wayside Inn in West Union, 62-year-old Wallingford wanted to know Wenstrup's views on gay marriage, abortion and guns. (The response: Against, pro-life and all for.)

Wallingford does put such social issues above even the economy in this election, and the gay marriage debate has only bolstered his views and his support of Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage.

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