RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Most of the election year attention the swing state of Ohio gets is focused on the heavily Democratic areas around Cleveland or in Republican strongholds in rural areas in Cincinnati. But it's also worth keeping a close eye on the less travelled border with Pennsylvania and West Virginia, down in the southeastern part of the state. That's the Ohio River Valley. As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, it's a place where there's a lot of doubt about how much either candidate can help.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Drive south on Route 7 in Jefferson County and the Ohio River is off to your left, winding along the Appalachian foothills, near hulking silent steel mills and past towns with names like Steubenville and Mingo Junction. That's where I bumped into 44-year-old Brian Snider.

BRIAN SNIDER: I mean this is pretty much a ghost town here now. I mean, I grew up around here. I mean there's only the one little store there. I mean there used to be dry cleaners, you know, the car wash is down.

GONYEA: The county jobless rate still tops 10 percent. Snider does have a job, as a local warehouse manager. Talking politics seems to make people weary here. You can hear it when I ask who he voted for last time.

SNIDER: Oh, it wasn't Obama.

(LAUGHTER)

SNIDER: You know?

GONYEA: But Snider says this year he's not sold on Mitt Romney either.

SNIDER: Who do I vote for? I don't know, 'cause they both say they're going to take care of us.

GONYEA: But Snider says he doesn't see either candidate helping much.

Nearby in the town of Brilliant, Edith and Joseph Fetty live in a ranch style house with American flag pin-wheels, out front in the flower beds He's retired military and later worked for the school district as a bus driver. She's worked a variety of jobs. The economy is the big issue for them. I asked how things are going.

EDITH FETTY: Not good since the mills closed down.

GONYEA: They did both vote for President Obama last time. But this year, they both say they haven't made up their mind. They are Democrats who are disappointed in the job the president's done. That's good news for Mitt Romney, right? Well, maybe not.

FETTY: What is the stopper with him there for me, is wanting to privatize everything. The Republicans want to privatize and I'm not - I'm not for that.

GONYEA: David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron says voters like these explain how someone can still be undecided, in a contest between two such very different candidates.

DAVID COHEN: This is a population that, you know, if you look, economically, they should probably be voting Democrat.

GONYEA: But he adds that people in this part of the state are often very religious, social conservatives. Additionally, he says that President Obama's race seems to be a factor with at least a portion of these voters.

COHEN: But also, you know, have to remember that Mitt Romney is Mormon. And especially among evangelicals that makes them uncomfortable, so they don't have a natural fit on the Republican side either.

GONYEA: Mr. Obama did win Jefferson County in 2008, but just barely. His margin was far smaller than Democratic nominee John Kerry four years earlier, even though Mr. Obama won Ohio and Kerry did not.

Voters here reluctant to talk about race. Seventy-five-year-old retired steel worker John Buchmelter, in Mingo Junction, is an Obama supporter. He said he doesn't want to think that President Obama's troubles here are because of his color.

JOHN BUCHMELTER: I don't want to believe that. I voted for him last time and I'll vote for him this time.

GONYEA: Just to the north, in the Ohio town called Toronto, Romney supporter and former Herman Cain backer, 37-year-old Byron Carlson says it's not about the president's race, but his policies.

BYRON CARLSON: To me, he doesn't represent what America is, truthfully.

GONYEA: He says the President Obama represents an entitlement society.

CARLSON: People can't get something for free. You got to work for something.

GONYEA: Ultimately, the talk here does turn back to the economy. There is hope that hydraulic fracking may bring jobs. And there are worries that the president will press environmental regulations that will stifle that practice. But Mitt Romney is hardly winning over these blue collar hearts, which means the undecided have less than eight weeks to figure things out.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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