STRONGSVILLE, OHIO // Talk turned in the third and final presidential debate this week to health care, and John McCain was outlining the differences between his plan and that of his opponent, Barack Obama. His tongue tied him up. "If you notice that in all of his proposals, Senator Government wants - Senator Obama wants - government to do the job," he said. The mistake drew laughter from the crowd in the debate hall at Hofstra University in New York - Republicans always paint Democrats as the party of big government - but it drew all-out cheers at a GOP-sponsored debate watch party in Strongsville, Ohio. A Freudian slip if ever there was one.
"Did he just call him 'Senator Government?' " Andy Zarzour, 38, whose family runs a deli one town over, asked with a smile. " 'Senator Government.' That's good, I like that." There was lots to like, at least for the Republican faithful, and that is who showed up at the Strongsville Victory Center on Wednesday night. One woman who advises the Young Republicans club at the local high school arrived wearing a pink pin declaring "Hot Chicks Vote Republican", and a 12-year-old girl came dressed as Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's running mate, complete with high heels and a swept-up hairdo. Stuck to her back was a bumper sticker: "Hockey Mom Wannabe '08."
But, with less than three weeks to go, some Republicans here are worried, enough to say so out loud. Everyone knows Mr McCain needs Ohio to win the election; no Republican has ever got to the White House without it. Everyone also knows that, lately, things have not been looking so good. Mr McCain's lead in the state has shrunk to the point where it no longer exists, according to a Fox News/Rasmussen Reports poll released this week. That survey showed Mr McCain behind for the first time, 49 per cent to 47 per cent.
"It's a rough patch," said Ed Oliveros, a semi-retired small-business man who is a past president of the Strongsville Republican Club. "I don't think his message is getting out." Strongsville, population 50,000, is a Republican-leaning suburb of Cleveland that calls itself the "Crossroads of the Nation"; it sits at the intersection of two major interstates, one running north-south, the other east-west. At a time when much of Ohio is struggling economically, it lives up to its name in a way: it has not been devastated like some of the state's more industrial cities, with heavy job losses in manufacturing and the automobile sector.
George W Bush, the US president, whose father campaigned here in 1992, won Strongsville with 55 per cent of the vote four years ago, but Mr McCain is not taking victory here for granted. On Oct 8, he and Mrs Palin held a boisterous campaign rally at the recreation and senior centre that drew as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people, far more than fit inside. The event put Strongsville on the map in a way many locals wished it had not, and which many considered unfair: a notorious liberal blogger who came to town posted on YouTube a few interviews in which he asked people if they believed Mr Obama was a terrorist (Mrs Palin charged recently that he had been "palling around with terrorists", a reference to his association with 1960s-era radical William Ayers). One McCain supporter dubbed Mr Obama a "one-man terror cell", while another said the Democrat had the "bloodlines" of a terrorist, citing his middle name, Hussein.
Vicki Delp, 51, who has lived in Strongsville for 17 years, works as a front desk assistant at the senior centre. She was raised Republican and has always voted Republican - at least until she switched her party registration to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. She probably will switch back and give her ballot to Mr McCain, but not entirely enthusiastically, in large part because she does not like Mrs Palin, whom she finds too conservative.
"I'm a little worried for him, I am," Mrs Delp said. "If he doesn't win here, he's not going to win. I just feel Ohio is so split." The Republican Victory Center, tucked on the second floor of a building that houses a bank and an optical shop, is mostly what it sounds like: a place where campaign volunteers are working to ensure victory for Mr McCain and the whole slate of Republican candidates running for state and local office. They make phone calls. They stuff campaign literature in plastic bags. Soon, they will start knocking on doors trying to get out the vote. Whichever party does a better job of that is likely to come out on top.
John Motley, who works for a large coatings company, has been overseeing much of the effort here as a volunteer himself; he once was awarded a plaque, now hanging in his den, declaring him the "Hardest-Working Republican in Strongsville". He has been a Republican ever since 1972, when he learnt, at age 10, that he shared a birthday with Richard Nixon. Asked how he feels about Mr McCain's chances, Mr Motley, 46, paused and said, "Good", then added: "I'm a little worried." Still, he has seen Mr McCain come from behind before.
"A year ago, he was nowhere," he said. "He was dead in the polls." Mr Motley was pleased with Mr McCain's debate performance but could not predict how it would play with independent, and undecided, voters, in Ohio and across the country. After all, it does not much matter if such diehard Republicans as him liked it; they are going to vote for Mr McCain anyway. "It wasn't a knockout punch," Mr Motley said. "There are very, very few of those in history."
There was a bit of a scandal in the Victory Center not long ago, which may or may not have been an omen: a life-size cardboard cut-out of Mr McCain that greeted visitors at the top of the stairs mysteriously vanished. Mr Motley went out and got a replacement, along with a cardboard Mrs Palin dressed in Republican red. This week, an Ohio state senator dropped off another cut-out, this one of Mr Bush, but Mr Motley put it in a back wardrobe, folded in half and still wrapped in plastic.
There came a moment in Wednesday's debate when that seemed relevant, even if in a metaphorical way. Mr Obama tried to link Mr McCain to the unpopular president, as he often has, and the Republican fought back in his most forceful, and direct, way yet. "Senator Obama, I am not George Bush," Mr McCain said. "If you wanted to run again President Bush, you should have run four years ago." It was another applause line here in Strongsville.