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Battleground Bar: Ohioans Take In First U.S. Presidential Debate

The scene at Froehlich's in Steubenville, Ohio during the debate on October 3
The scene at Froehlich's in Steubenville, Ohio during the debate on October 3
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Sports is off-air, at least for tonight, in the bar at Froehlich's Classic Corner Restaurant in Steubenville, Ohio.

At this neighborhood eatery, one of the few open in the city's economically depressed downtown, locals are turning their attention to political plays instead, as they watch President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney trade barbs and rebuffs in the first debate of the 2012 election season.

In practical terms, what the viewers at Froehlich's take from the debate matters more than the opinions of millions of other Americans who live in states firmly on the side of either Obama or Romney.

Ohio is a swing state, so its 18 precious electoral votes are a viable target for both campaigns. According to the polls, Obama has begun to widen his lead here, but Romney is still within striking distance. Steubenville -- a short drive from both Pennsylvania, which leans toward Obama, and West Virginia, a sure bet for Romney -- is in a particularly divided corner of the state. Some who have gathered at Froehlich's, then, bristle while their neighbors smirk, shaking their heads while others nod.

David Dials, 58, is an unemployed veteran. He isn't pleased when Romney, in his opening statement, inserts an anecdote about a woman from Ohio asking him for help.

"There's not one thing he can do to help her right now," he tells a friend. "'Vote for me! Put a smile on my face and vote for me!' That's all he's doing -- just playing the game.”

Dials plans to vote for Obama.
David Dials watches the Obama-Romney debate at Froehlich's.
David Dials watches the Obama-Romney debate at Froehlich's.

His friend, 38-year-old Jamar Yetts, is also unemployed. He looks up from a plate of buffalo wings to answer, "Well, I'd ask him for help. He might be able to give some, and we could use it."

Obama's handling of the economy, still weakened by the financial crisis of the late 2000s, is a main topic of debate, both for the president and his opponent and around the bar at Froehlich's.

As Romney goes on the offensive, Tracey Jackson, a 42-year-old cook and dishwasher, says Obama deserves a second term to tackle stubborn unemployment and the country's massive deficit.

"I just think he needs a chance," Jackson says. "I mean, [President George W.] Bush got us deeper and deeper in a hole and [Obama's] trying to make it better. They have to give him a chance."

Brandy Haines, a 34-year-old bartender, says the financial pinch makes it all the more necessary for new policies to help small businesses offer health insurance to their employees.

"If you have a minimum wage job, [the government] should make it easier for companies to provide health care," Haines says. "I strongly believe that. Just basically make it easier for people that are struggling and trying to make it on their own."

Haines is one of the nearly 49 million Americans who lack coverage, but she remains skeptical of Obama's overhaul of the health-care system, despite its pledge to reduce that number over the coming years. She isn't impressed with Obama's defense on this topic during the debate, and says she will likely vote for Romney.
Closed shops line S. 4th Street in Steubenville, Ohio
Closed shops line S. 4th Street in Steubenville, Ohio

Jill Watkins, a 37-year-old salon-owner, says she's surprised that women's health issues are not mentioned by either candidate.

Still, she says she's confident that Obama is the better choice on this issue, fearing that Romney would try to limit women's ability to have abortions.

"If a Republican gets in, then they are going to cut things. If there's no abortion or there's nothing to help women, or if you're in a struggle or you're in some sort of bind and you can't do something that you need to do for yourself, then it's gonna be a really bad thing for you," Watkins says. "I think it should be the woman's choice and there shouldn't be any kind of politics [involved]."

Another topic not mentioned in this presidential debate -- the first of three, and focused on domestic policy -- is the U.S. raid that killed former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Dials says he hopes Obama can achieve a similarly resounding success on the economic front, but questions whether political divisions in Washington will interfere.

"I do gotta give credit to Obama for getting bin Laden. That took guts," Dials says. "If he gets the chance to, I hope he does [use the same guts on the economy]. I know his hands are going to be tied and people are going to be trying to hold him down."

Jim Shooshan, a 42-year-old Armenian-American who works at an appliance store, says he harbors similar fears, and not just on the economy.

Ordering another Bud Light, he offers a pessimistic view on the next four years.

"Nothing's going to get accomplished, 'cause as soon as someone proposes anything, the anger and animosity are just gonna overflow and whatever is proposed to be done ain't gonna get passed," Shooshan says. "So people just need to put aside their personal views and get down to what's best for the country. Period."

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