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In the Rust Belt, a Ripple of Optimism

Susan Milligan is visiting six Election 2012 battleground states to talk with 50-plus voters for a report that will be published in the September issue of the AARP Bulletin. She posted this from Youngstown, Ohio.

When I last visited Youngstown, Ohio, four years ago, the city whose steel mills "built the tanks and bombs that won this country's wars," as Bruce Springsteen put it, had the feel of an industrial ghost town. So economically damaged was Youngstown from the decline of the steel and manufacturing industries that it seemed it might just fade away. But there's a ripple of new optimism in Youngstown, I found on a recent trip there to hear from older voters.

"There's a resurgence going on - it's coming back," says Patricia Dougan, a 61-year-old lawyer, citing the new steel mill in town (a $650 million plant that will turn out seamless steel tubes for the natural-gas industry) and plans for a new casino. "This would be a good place to retire." The city's downturn has had its upside, Dougan notes, since housing prices are low.

Tibitha Matheney, a local real estate agent who holds the SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist) designation from the National Association of Realtors, says that Youngstown is becoming a popular place for retirees to settle because you can buy "a decent home" for $60,000 to $90,000. One of her clients bought a home for $25,000. Another couple, she says, is planning to sell their pricey home in California, buy a cheaper home in Youngstown, and live off what's left over.

From an economic standpoint, however, everything isn't hunky-dory. The statewide unemployment rate is 7.5 percent, which is a little bit below the national rate of 8.1 percent, but in the Youngstown area it's 8.6 percent.

Ohio is on everyone's list of key swing states. Mitt Romney has visited Ohio several times in just the past few weeks, perhaps because no Republican has made it to the White House in recent history without winning the state. And Vice President Joe Biden will be in Ohio - right here in Youngstown - today.

With 18 electoral votes at stake, the smart money says that the top-of-the-ticket candidates will be visiting Ohio a lot between now and November, as will their surrogates and spin doctors. Youngstown, come to think of it, would be a pretty good place to stay and watch the action.   -Susan Milligan

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