COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – It’s been a tumultuous political summer.
The unexpected rises of billionaire Donald Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders. Signs of weakness for Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Curiosity about the future of Vice President Joe Biden.
Yet in Ohio, the nation’s most reliable general election bellwether, voters are taking a more measured view of a race they ultimately may decide.
“It’s all just chatter,” said Judith Anderson, 40, a Democrat from Cincinnati. “We’re a ways out.”
Anderson is one of the more than 50 voters interviewed by The Associated Press the week before Labor Day in Ohio, which along with Florida will be one of the most coveted states in the 2016 election.
They report that the Republican primary is wide open, even as Trump holds steady atop early polls. There’s little interest in establishment candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and a surprising lack of energy for Ohio’s own governor, John Kasich.
But they also say there’s room for someone other than Trump to tap into voters’ frustration with a political system they believe has abandoned them.
When it comes to Trump, Ohio Republicans have a palpable excitement about his brash brand of politics, and a deep uncertainty about his qualifications to serve as president.
Earl Taggart, 44, a Cincinnati-area electrician, said Trump’s bluntness is forcing other candidates to address issues they would rather avoid, including illegal immigration. But could Taggart see Trump becoming president?
“I don’t think he’s got a shot in hell,” he said. “He’s not the mouthpiece we want for America.”
The interviews also highlighted nagging concerns about Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness amid the continued revelations about her use of a private email account and server while serving as secretary of state.
While some Democrats are intrigued by Sanders, the self-declared “democratic socialist” from Vermont, many see the senator more as a novelty than a credible alternative.
There’s even less interest among Ohio Democrats in Biden getting into the race.
The voters represent just a slice of the Ohio electorate, and many say they’re just starting to pay attention to the campaign. Still, their views provide insights into the direction the White House race might take as the turbulent summer fades into fall.
TRUMP IN THE CONVERSATION
As is the case elsewhere, Trump is dominating the political discussion in Ohio.
Republicans, independents, and even a few Democrats say they welcome the real estate mogul’s willingness to speak his mind and challenge opponents.
“I’m tired of everything being politically correct,” said Carol Gruber, a 56-year-old Republican from Cincinnati. “He’s a little crass, but I like that he tells it like it is.”
But many of those who say Trump is playing an important role in the race are nonetheless reluctant to elect him president.
“It makes me nervous,” said Beverly Kaiser, an independent voter from Columbus.
For Shannon Balnes, the question is still whether Trump is even serious about his White House aspirations. “I still don’t know if this is a game he’s playing,” said Balnes, a 44-year-old Republican from Cincinnati.
Nearly all of the voters drawn to Trump said there were other GOP candidates they would consider supporting, namely other political novices: retired surgeon Ben Carson and former technology executive Carly Fiorina.
“Let’s change it up. It can’t hurt,” said Bruce Ost of Louisville, Ohio, a 60-year-old independent who voted for Republicans in the past two presidential elections.
For the more experienced politicians in the field, there’s little to latch on to in the views of the state’s voters. Most garnered barely a mention from Republicans voters, including Kasich, who became a favorite of political insiders after the first Republican debate.
Kasich’s most enthusiastic endorsement came from Zita Patton, 60, a retired teacher from North Canton. “I’m used to him. He’s comfortable,” she said as she headed back to her car after shopping at a farmer’s market.
One political veteran whose name did come up frequently was Bush – but only in the context of rejecting the idea of electing a third Bush as president.
“We’ve already had two Bushes,” said Randy Wadsworth, a 62-year-old retired steelworker from Canton who is solidly behind Trump. “It’s time to give someone else a chance.”
WHY OHIO IS IMPORTANT
With progressive urban centers, swing suburbs and conservative rural areas, Ohio is a political microcosm for the rest of the country.
Other states offer more electoral votes than Ohio’s 18. But no other state has been as predictive of the general election winner.
History shows that for Republicans in particular, an Ohio victory is crucial: No GOP nominee has won the White House without carrying the state.
Ohio solidified its prominence in presidential politics during the 2004 election, when it was the deciding factor in President George W. Bush’s victory over Democrat John Kerry.
President Barack Obama won Ohio comfortably in 2008, but only closely in 2012, casting himself as the savior of Ohio’s auto industry, which was on the brink of collapse during the recession.
Like much of the country, Ohio’s economy has rebounded since the depths of the crisis. The statewide unemployment rate sits at 5 percent, slightly lower than the national average. Ohio’s economy is growing.
After two consecutive losses to Obama, the GOP is determined to turn it around. Republicans held their first debate in Cleveland and will return to the city next summer for the nominating convention.
OHIO LIKES THE CLINTONS
Ohio has long been friendly to Clinton.
She handily defeated Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, helping her stay afloat in a race she ended up losing. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, carried Ohio in both of his general election campaigns and is viewed fondly by many Ohio Democrats, who associate his two terms with a booming economy, in the state and the country.
Yet many aren’t giving Clinton a pass on questions about her email habits at the State Department.
“I don’t know whether she’s telling the truth or lying,” said Daniel Brown, a 50-year-old painter from Cincinnati. “She’s been avoiding it. Well, not even really avoiding it, but not answering either.”
Clifton Duckson, a program administrator who has voted for Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections, questioned why local government employees have to follow rules about public records but Clinton doesn’t.
“What’s good for us isn’t good enough for her?” asked Duckson, 58, of Columbus.
But even among Democrats concerned about Clinton’s activities at the State Department, there was only moderate interest in hanging the party’s White House hopes on another candidate.
While Washington insiders have been scrutinizing Biden’s every move for signs that he will make a late entry into the race, only a few Ohio Democrats interviewed by AP said they would consider voting for him. They did so only after being asked about his potential candidacy.
There was more intrigue surrounding Sanders, who has been drawing massive crowds in liberal strongholds and moving up in early polling throughout the summer.
“He shows that he has values and he does his best to stick with them,” said Sandra Aska, a 72-year-old Democrat from Columbus.
She has not settled on a candidate and is torn between Clinton’s experience in international affairs and Sanders’ populist economic positions. “Maybe they’d make a good ticket together,” she quipped over breakfast at a local market.
Other Democrats said they, too, like Sanders’ calls for free college tuition and better wages for the middle class. But some shared the view of 30-year-old Aaron Singleton of Canton, who said Sanders’ plans seem “so far-fetched as to how he’s going to implement them.”
The only Democrats who raised the prospect that Sanders could defeat Clinton were her ardent supporters. They remember well when an insurgent Obama grabbed the nomination from the presumed front-runner in 2008.
Annette Greenwald, a 56-year-old from Alliance, said she’s always liked Clinton and wants to see a woman in the White House. But Sanders’ surge feels familiar, Greenwald said, and she worries young people will rally around the Vermont senator the way they did around Obama.
“I think she better watch out,” Greenwald said.
Follow Julie Pace on Twitter
(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)