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Democratic Party Leaders Look To Debate To Harness Support In Ohio


OK, to Ohio now. Ohio has long been considered the key presidential battleground state. President Trump won there comfortably in 2016, though, raising questions about Democrats' prospects for the state in 2020. Well, Ohio Democratic leaders are now pushing back hard. They are using tonight's debate in the Columbus suburbs to organize and harness voters' energy. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Sit down with Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, and the first thing he wants to do is disabuse you of any notion that Ohio is now a red state.

DAVID PEPPER: We believe strongly this can be the state that ends the Trump presidency if we have the right candidates and the right message.

GONYEA: Pepper says evidence of Ohio's competitiveness comes in polls showing President Trump's low approval rating here and the fact that Trump keeps coming to the state. He's been here more than a dozen times as president.

PEPPER: There's some folks that say, well, don't bother in Ohio. Don't do it. Well, that's, like, an invitation for him to be in Wisconsin every week. That's the last thing we want. We want him having to fight it out in places like here. It's almost, for us, a badge of honor and a sign that things are going well that he's here all the time.

GONYEA: And this latest Democratic debate is another chance to reach out to Ohio voters unhappy with the Trump presidency. All week, there have been events large and small scattered around the state. Most are actually pretty low-key, like this one at a dairy farm in rural Raymond, Ohio, about 45 minutes outside of Columbus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you all for being here. We are honored to be at your farm.

GONYEA: Democratic activists and officeholders from rural Ohio are here. They are farmers, teachers, a former minister, a small-town lawyer. For generations, Joe Reed's family has farmed 1,200 acres near the town of Belle Center, population about 800.

JOE REED: And Belle Center used to have a doctor, used to have two grocery stores, used to have a hardware store. It's all gone. The hollowing out of rural towns has been so dramatic.

GONYEA: There's discussion of how the opioid crisis has hit rural communities and lack of support for struggling rural hospitals and even the trade wars. But another common complaint is that Democrats nationally too often ignore rural voters. Here's Bryn Byrd, a local township trustee and a Democrat whose family runs a produce farm.

BRYN BYRD: There's a feeling that it's urban-centric Democrats coming into our rural communities, telling us how to live, telling us how to treat the environment, telling us what programs we need.

GONYEA: Now back in Columbus and another event tied to debate week. Its focus - training volunteers to register voters, but also to recognize any suspected cases of voter suppression. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty ran the session.

JOYCE BEATTY: Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that want to suppress the vote. And we believe that everyone should be able to exercise their right to vote because their voice is their vote, and that is our power.

GONYEA: Finally, we go to the suburbs, a place many Democrats see as the key to any success they might have unseating Donald Trump next year. Despite Trump's easy victory in Ohio last time, the suburbs here are trending toward Democrats. In part, that's because of moderate women voters. Fifty-three-year-old Stephanie Pizer lives in Dublin, Ohio. She'd never been active in politics until Donald Trump got elected.

STEPHANIE PIZER: It started out with three women at dinner saying, what can we do? We decided to call our friends and start a group and look at how we could be more involved, and now we have 310 members.

GONYEA: And they are teaming up with other groups of activist suburban women in other towns around the state under the name of Red Wine and Blue. Pizer says the debate gives them even more opportunities to connect with volunteers, and she says the DNC's decision to bring the presidential candidates to the Columbus suburbs validates the work that these activists are already doing.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Columbus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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