Ohio House Seat a Mid-Term Bellwether

This story was written by "CBS Evening News" Producer Phil Hirschkorn.

For John Boccieri, representing northeastern Ohio's 16th Congressional District the past two years has been a whirlwind similar to his service in the military.

"Like flying a C-130 in the United States Air Force -- have all this training, but every mission is different," Boccieri said in an interview inside Bill and Mary's diner in North Canton, Ohio, this week.

Special Section: Campaign 2010

Boccieri, 41 and a freshman Democrat, is one of three members of the House of Representatives who served in the war in Iraq and one of four who has served in Afghanistan.

"Living in tents, eating at the chow hall, long deployments away from the family. I think that brings a perspective that many members of Congress don't have," he said.

Although Boccieri is quick to say he supports President Obama's timetable to withdraw American troops from Iraq "safely, honorably, and soon," Boccieri's focus during his first re-election campaign lies on the domestic front, particularly fighting for jobs.

Since the recession began three years ago, the unemployment rate for the Canton-Massillon metropolitan area at the heart of Ohio's 16th District has nearly doubled from 6 percent to 11.5 percent.

For his part, Boccieri voted to extend unemployment benefits, voted for Mr. Obama's economic stimulus package and has sponsored legislation to reward businesses with tax credits for hiring the long-term unemployed.

"I have a record to run on," the congressman said.

Of course, that record is coming under attack by his Republican challenger, Jim Rennaci, who touts his 27 years running nursing homes and other businesses along with a term as mayor of Wadsworth, a town of 20,000, where, Renacci likes to say, he balanced an $80 million budget without raising taxes.

"I've employed over 3,000 people. I understand what it means to create a job," Rennaci said inside his storefront campaign headquarters in Canton, not far from the city's biggest tourist attraction, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"We can't have policies that basically kill jobs and also at the same time spend the amount of money we're spending and put the amount of debt we're putting on our country," Rennaci said.

Rennaci calls for lower taxes to stimulate the economy and less government spending while attacking Boccieri and the Democrats for the ballooning federal budget deficit.

"What we need to do is get government out of the way," Renacci said. "The free market system will take care of itself."

Looking ahead to this November's mid-term elections, the Democratic Party holds a working majority of seats in Congress with 59 seats in the Senate and a 37-seat majority in the House. But Republicans are optimistic they can chip away at those margins, if not retake control of both chambers.

Among the more vulnerable Democrats are those seeking re-election in the 48 House districts carried by Republican John McCain in the presidential election two years ago. Mr. Obama carried Ohio 52 percent to 47 percent but lost Ohio's 16th by 50 percent to 48 percent.

"At the end of the day, my constituents vote for me to be their congressman, they don't vote for the president, they don't vote for a congressman from San Francisco," Boccieri said, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "They vote for me."

Nevertheless, a CBS News poll conducted between Aug. 20 and Aug. 24 found for the first time since Mr. Obama took office that more Americans disapproved of the president's handling of the economy, 48 percent, than approved of it, 44 percent.

An example of the downturn in Ohio is the thousand jobs lost when Hoover appliances abandoned its century-old headquarters and vacuum manufacturing plant in North Canton in 2007.

In recent years, local leaders have worked hard to attract investors to convert the abandoned complex for new businesses and residences.

On Thursday, Boccieri toured those firms, including CP Myers, which makes circuit breakers for rail lines and created 135 new jobs when it moved in.

A frequent complaint Boccieri hears a from small businesses owners is the rising cost of health insurance premiums for employees despite the health reform package passed by Congress earlier this year.

At a diner roundtable, one business owner told Boccieri her insurance went up another 15 percent in January for a total hike of 46 percent in three years.

"While this is being phased in, we see insurance companies are behaving like credit card companies," Boccieri said.

Supporters contend the president's health reform bill should increase access to care for more than 45 million Americans without health insurance and cut costs in a $2.5 trillion chunk of the economy.

Boccieri said the legislation succeeded in "holding insurance companies accountable so folks don't get dumped off their insurance even though they were paying the premiums, making sure folks can take their health care from job to job, not be denied coverage because they had a pre-existing condition."

But Republican challenger Rennaci considers health reform a mistake.

"Eight-five percent of our problem was cost, 15 percent was coverage. All this bill did was take care of the coverage issues," Renacci said.

Boccieri replied, "I ask my opponent why he doesn't want the American people to enjoy the very same health care insurance he would enjoy as a member of Congress. Because, quite frankly, the plan is modeled after the very same plan we have as members of Congress."

Volunteers making cold calls to voters from Renacci's campaign office refer to Boccieri as someone who voted "for nationalized health care."

The challenger's campaign also seeks to bring up Boccieri's support for the energy policy known as "cap and trade," a market-oriented approach to reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that accelerate global climate change. Proposed energy reform legislation failed to earn enough votes to pass Congress earlier this year.

Cap-and-trade policy, which has been effective in combating acid rain, limits the amount of a pollutant that a business can emit and creates permits to exceed the cap, which can be purchased, or traded, from other firms. In Ohio, where most electricity is generated from coal, there is resistance.

"Cap and trade is a job killing tax," Renacci said. He found support for that view Wednesday when he visited North Canton Plastics, a plant that has an electric bill of $25,000 a month. With revenue down by a third this year, the factory has laid off 50 workers.

"People are not going out and spending today. They are worried about the future," sales manager Norm Francis said.

Boccieri makes no apology for his vote on the defeated energy plan and points out that "cap and trade" was part of the 2008 Republican platform led by the McCain-Palin ticket.

"Only in Washington can you propose an idea, introduce legislation and campaign against it, and our friends on the other side of the aisle have done exactly that," Boccieri said.

Still, Republicans like Renacci are trying to tie Boccieri to a president whose approval rating has sunk below 50 percent and the unpopular Democratic leadership of Congress.

"John Boccieri is representing Nancy Pelosi right now, and that's a problem," Renacci said.

Boccieri responded, "That's probably one of the most dishonest things I've heard in the campaign because the speaker doesn't vote."

Boccieri argues his voting record is moderate, saying he has sided with Republicans more than half the time - in 847 of his 1,464 House votes. The National Journal rated Boccieri's 2009 voting record as 49 percent liberal and 51 percent conservative.

One northeastern Ohio constituent who would like to hear the partisan tone diminish is Bob Shearer, owner of a Massillon salty snacks factory that's been a family-owned business for 36 years with 1,300 employees. He knows both Boccieri and Renacci.

"The thing I find to be most irritating is the fact that we don't see bipartisanship, we don't see people trying to work together, and I put it back to how I run our business," Shearer said. "We obviously have a management team that has differences of opinions, but we have to work through those differences, and we have to come out with the right solution, the best thing for our company, and I think that's how we should be running the country."

"Both parties have good ideas and good intentions, but anytime you listen to the news, if one says this, the other says that," Shearer said. "As an American citizen I get tired of listening to it."

Bridging the partisan gap is what Boccieri believes he has been doing the past 20 months. In November, he will find out if his Republican-leaning district agrees.

"I don't want to be a seat warmer in Washington," the congressman said. "I came to office not just to win elections but to get things done."