NEWARK, Ohio -- It was a cold and rainy morning. The sky crackled with lightning. Rain-drenched senior citizens crowded against a locked church door, waiting for a released deadbolt to let them inside for a shot of flu vaccine.
This scene at the First Baptist Church of Newark on Monday could be a recipe for political disaster for an incumbent president locked in a close presidential race. Ohio senior citizens are among the most coveted voters in the nation -- swing voters in a crucial swing state that has 20 electoral votes.
But senior citizens interviewed here did not hold any politician accountable for a sudden problem that has been thrust into their lives just before the Nov. 2 election. Even supporters of Democratic candidate John Kerry did not blame President Bush for the shortage of flu vaccines.
''I'm not happy with the way the government is being run, but I'm sure President Bush is doing the best (he) can to get us the flu vaccine,'' said Mary Hogue, 66.
Polls of likely voters have shown the state going either way. A poll taken Oct. 9-11 by Strategic Vision had Bush leading Kerry by 51% to 45%, with a margin of error of +/--3 percentage points. A poll taken Oct. 8-11 for the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV showed Kerry ahead 49% to 45%, with a +/--4.4-point error margin.
Interviews with 17 senior citizens waiting for flu shots indicate that Bush, at least for now, might not face serious political damage from the vaccine shortage. The USA will have only half the expected supply of flu vaccine because contamination at a factory in England shut down one of this country's two suppliers.
The seniors say the vaccine shortage has been a serious problem for them. Many have tried two or three times to get the vaccine, but the lines were too long or the supply ran out before they got a shot.
On Monday, people using canes and wheelchairs began lining up outside the First Baptist Church at 10:30 a.m., three hours before the clinic was scheduled to open. By noon, more than 200 seniors stood in a downpour, with the temperature hovering at 40 degrees, waiting for one of the 650 flu shots available.
Many were irritated by the hardship. But the feeling did not translate immediately into politics.
''Kerry could have been president when this happened,'' said Lucille Prince, 65, a Bush supporter. ''It's terrible, but you can't blame the president.''
''I wouldn't mind if this hurt Bush in the election, but I don't think it would be fair. He doesn't make the vaccine, after all,'' said Mary Persons, 71, a Kerry supporter.
Ohio has fared better than some states in obtaining flu vaccine. The state got nearly every dose it ordered because it placed early orders with Aventis Pasteur, the company without production problems.
The state got 260,000 of the 270,000 doses it ordered for distribution to public health clinics, such as the one at the First Baptist Church in Newark. It also received 100,000 additional doses under a federal program to vaccinate children. These doses supply about 20% of the vaccine needed in the state, said Barb Bradley of the Ohio Department of Public Health.
The strongest political sentiment here Monday was anger that the USA must import its flu vaccine from another country.
''We should be able to do this in the United States,'' said Mary Chryslip, 68. ''Then we could handle our own problems.''
That theme was echoed by many other voters in this state that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs to other countries.
''You can't blame everything on the president,'' said Mary Mitchell, 79.
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