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Carney: Can Romney bring upscale suburbs back to the GOP?

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

UPPER ARLINGTON, OHIO - It's called the Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern, but you won't find any rust here. Its "corner" is actually the edge of a tony strip-mall courtyard. A Whole Foods stands two doors to the right, and a few hundred feet in the other direction, Whole Foods is building an even bigger store.

Welcome to Upper Arlington, Ohio, the kind of town that will choose your next president.

Upper-middle-class, heavily educated white moderates have been trending Democratic for decades, and they were crucial to Obama's 2008 win. If Romney can win them back, he can carry Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Colorado.

Upper Arlington is 92 percent white, and 71 percent have a college degree. Half the city's households earn more than $91,955 -- about the same median income as Arlington, Va. More than 80 percent of homes in Upper Arlington are owner-occupied, and the average home is worth $313,000 -- double the state average.

Politicians look for swing voters. The affluent white population of places like Upper Arlington not only swings, it also votes -- 70 percent of adults here voted in the 2010 elections, compared with 38 percent nationally.

And if there's anywhere Mitt Romney fits in, it's here.

Some recent history:

In 2004, George W. Bush won 56 percent in Upper Arlington. Even then, local Republicans noted with concern the proliferation of "UA for Kerry" signs. Four years later, McCain won only 51 percent here, beating Obama in the city by fewer than 1,000 votes out of nearly 23,000 cast.

Obama came across as a serious thinker and compromise-minded leader who would toss aside the acrimony and ideology of the Bush era and really solve problems.

Between them, Michelle and Barack had four Ivy League degrees and two children who would make any soccer mom or dad proud. This was the perfect formula for deeper Democratic inroads into the burbs.

McCain, meanwhile, never appealed much to the heavily educated suburban white voter.

Then came his choice of running mate. "Once he picked Palin, it was over," Scott James told me over lunch and a couple of pints at Mulligan's outside Cleveland. James and his wife, Shelley, live in Avon, a well-off suburb on Lake Erie. They are moderate Republicans, and Shelley describes herself as pro-choice.

Scott James, and thousands like him in Cleveland's bedroom communities, bought into the Obama line. Now he sees it as a myth. Obamacare showed James that the president wasn't the postpartisan problem solver he wanted: "You take something that 60 percent of Americans don't agree with, and you cram it down our throats."

Scott and Shelley have already voted for Romney.

James Hilditch told me the same story down at the Rusty Bucket. In 2008, Obama was "saying all the right stuff," Hilditch said. When Obama said Bush's doubling the debt to $10 trillion was "immoral," it won over Hilditch.

Today, as Hilditch put it, "we're up to our asses in debt." Hilditch is switching to Romney, too, saying Obama's mishandling of the deadly Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack finally convinced him.

For these white-collar voters, Romney might be nearly the perfect Republican -- heavily educated, non-ideological, nearly silent on social issues, and a proven problem solver. Upper Arlington and Avon are impressed by a successful businessman.

Romney's Ohio sidekick, Sen. Rob Portman, is the right guy for the affluent, white vote. More conservative in mien than in politics, Portman projects the bourgeois seriousness that assures the professional class. "He's a smart guy," Shelley James said. Portman won 70 percent in Upper Arlington in 2010 -- 12 points higher than his statewide total.

By my rough math, Romney will need 56 percent in the Cleveland and Columbus suburbs to win Ohio. He needs tens of thousands of James Hilditches and Scott Jameses -- whites who voted for Obama in 2008 voters but are abandoning him this year.

The expanded Whole Foods near the Rusty Bucket, however, shows why Romney will have a hard time doing this: The white-collar suburbs in Ohio are doing fine, and most people who are doing fine won't switch horses midstream.

The income group in Ohio happiest with Obama's performance is those making more than $100,000 -- 37 percent "strongly approve" of the president, according a recent Rasmussen poll. Half of all Obama voters in Ohio rate their personal finances as good or excellent, compared to one-third of Romney voters.

Finally, among Ohio households earning more than $100,000, Obama is tied with Romney.

Upper Arlington is better off than it was four years ago. So are Arlington, Va., and Lake Mary, Fla. That may be enough for Obama to win four more years.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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