'I don't mind him being the captain of my football team, but I don't want him running the country.'' That was the first conversation I had about Barack Obama as I got off the plane at Cincinnati airport. The second nearly involved my getting straight back on it: the immigration officer wasn't impressed with the way I'd filled out my form. He wasn't particularly impressed with John McCain, either. "It's Obama's to lose,'' he barked at me, before sending me on my way.
The reason I was in Ohio was that, since 1960, the Buckeye State has always picked the winner of the presidential race -- and its voting patterns have always been within 2pc of the national result. Hence the saying: "As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.'' With its blend of black and white, rich and poor, industrial and agricultural, the state is a microcosm of America -- and Cincinnati and its surroundings are, in turn, fairly representative of the state.
On one side of the city you find Indian Hill, the third-most lucrative zip code in the US for Republican fundraisers, who recently brought in $2.5m there in a single night. Across town, it's a different story. Every other shop is boarded up. There are no nice lawns and no Stars and Stripes at the bottom of the garden, just rusty old cars.
Since George W Bush took power, about 240,000 jobs have been lost in Ohio, and with the economy turning sour, the atmosphere is grim, even at the local baseball stadium.
Mind you, that might say more about the home team, the Cincinnati Reds, than the state of the nation. When I turned up, they were in the process of losing their 14th match out of 15. Chad and Colleen were sitting next to me with their three children. Chad looked disgusted -- with both the Reds, and his elected leaders. "Have you seen the price of gas?'' he asked me. "That's the war for you.''
"I'm sick of the election already,'' said Colleen, through a mouthful of hot dog and sauce. "I don't like either of them.''
The mood wasn't any brighter after the game, in the Cadillac Ranch bar on Vine Street. Many of the Democrats moaned about Obama's inexperience and his flip-flopping on policy, but what became clear after a few drinks was that the real issue -- as it had been for my acquaintance at the airport -- was his skin colour. "People around here are racist,'' said Katie, an 18-year-old first-time voter, as we discussed Hillary Clinton's victory over Obama in the Ohio primaries. "They are all too proper to say so, but that's how it is. They would rather have a woman than a black man.''
I did find at least one Obama supporter -- the taxi driver who took me out to the suburb of Northside the next morning. "I've not voted for 45 years, but this man gets my vote,'' said Vito. "It is time for that change.''
I was heading to one of Obama's "Persuasion Centres'', of which there are about 25 in Ohio. They're dedicated to registering first-time voters -- especially the poor blacks who would normally ignore elections. The vibrant centre in Northside was staffed exclusively by volunteers, who were either white college kids or middle-aged black women. "I'm too young to vote by a month so I'm giving four days a week of my holidays to help instead,'' said Stacey, one of the kids.
The place was stuffed with laptops and mobile phones being charged up for action. The idea is basically pyramid selling: the volunteers bombard people with phone calls. If whoever answers the phone is sympathetic, they're asked to organise a house party for Obama. If they're undecided, they get the full pitch.
However, Frank Lea, my cab driver on the way back, was sceptical about the chances of such tactics. "Them people won't get out of bed to vote,'' he insisted. "Never have before and they won't this time.'' Frank was the kind of voter this contest will come down to -- a life-long Democrat who believes "they should build a gallows for Bush and Cheney'', and looks burly enough to do the job himself. "But this time I'm voting McCain,'' he said. "Obama is too inexperienced.''
That was the kind of thing they like to hear at my next destination -- the corporate-style suite of offices on Walnut Street serving as the McCain campaign's Cincinnati headquarters. When I said to Maggie Nafziger, the executive director of the Cincinnati Republicans, that motivating first-time voters might be a problem, her reply was direct: "We've already seen that Obama can get $5 donations from them, so there is no reason why they won't turn out to vote. I give him a ton of credit for that.''
Did she think her party might suffer from President Bush's mistakes, or the indictment scandal that surrounded the state's former Republican governor Bob Taft? Nafziger didn't see any problems: "He [McCain] has always stepped away from the Republican brand throughout his career.'' Crikey, I said. Last time I checked he was the Republican candidate.
Probably my best insight into Ohio's floating voters came in Mount Adam, the most bohemian district of Cincinnati. It was in a wine bar there that I met Kadie. She didn't care who she voted for, as long as the names Clinton or Bush weren't on the ticket. As to whether Obama's first-time voters would outweigh the Democrats alarmed by his race and inexperience, she didn't have a clue.
The barman, Josh, quietly told me there was a multitude of such "turned-off'' voters. He himself is so annoyed by the faltering economy -- and especially the price of gas -- that he's moving to Greece. But in general, he added, talking politics is a bit of a no-no.
The election is months away, yet most voters "don't do that stuff'', "don't like either'' or are "fed up with voting for second best''. And most are planning to vote against what they don't like, rather than for what they want. Half of the Democrats prefer a white woman to a black man. Many of the Republicans see McCain as being too old and too liberal. So much for this being the election of change.
Ultimately, how Ohio swings will depend on whether the first-time voters dreaming of "hope'' outnumber the closet bigots who say "nope''. Based on what I've seen, I'm going with "nope''. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)