CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Cuyahoga County early vote site downtown looked like every other polling place I've seen in an urban area, a mostly-black group of voters waiting in a 2-hour line. Across the street, a local group of Obama volunteers had set up a sound system playing "whatever was family friendly" in the DJ's cell phone. (This meant lots of Kayne West, surprisingly enough.)
What I didn't expect to see: State Treasurer Josh Mandel, a 35-year old Marine Corp veteran who doesn't look a day over 17. Nearly every poll projects that he will lose the race for U.S. Senate to Democrat Sherrod Brown. He and two staffers were about to wade into the early vote line -- one that would not have existed had Democrats not sued for it, but whatever. Mandel, a Cleveland-area native, was confident that he'd find common ground.
"This is a broad-based campaign," he said. "We've got Democrats, Republicans, independents, libertarians, vegetarians, everything in between. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Christians, Jews."
But what did they have in common?
"Well, I would have opposed TARP," said Mandel. "Another one of the issues I think we can agree on is No Budget, No Pay. Are you familiar with the group No Labels?" I said that I was. "[Former] Sen. Voinovich and Sen. Bayh from Indiana, they're part of it as well. It's a bipartisan group, and one of their main issues is that if Congress doesn't pass a budget, they don't get paid."
Mandel grabbed a sheaf of literature (JOSH MANDEL: TESTED, TRUSTED) and crossed the street, where he met this guy.
Then began the politicking. An AFSCME member, who preferred not to be named, gave the candidate a hug and pronounced him a great guy. Alas, he'd be voting for Brown.
The crowd was like that, tough but friendly. They shook Mandel's hand while cradling Democratic sample ballots telling them not to vote for Josh Mandel. "I'm happy to talk to him, and I'm glad he's here," said Zafira Muhammad, who wore a Muslim crescent necklace. "But I'm supporting the candidate who can work with the president. Brown voted for the bailout, and a lot of people are working because of that bailout." Nate Brown asked Mandel for his position on gay marriage, respectfully nodded when Mandel told him (paraphrase) he'd fight for equal rights but believed marriage was between a man and a woman, then laughed when I asked about his vote.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "I'm a gay black puppeteer. I've gotta vote for Sherrod Brown."
I didn't want to shadow Mandel to the point of creepiness, but I did see him connect with a black veteran who wore his US Army pin on his topcoat. "I'm a Reagan Republican," he told me. "In 2008, there was only one vet on the ticket, only one choice. I voted for John McCain." Mandel was a veteran. Would he vote for him? "He's a great guy. I think the world of him. Just don't know if he's up to it, if he's ready. How much of a force can he be for this community?"