Salena Zito

STEUBENVILLE – This Ohio River town once was an outpost of the Wild West, guarding surveyors who mapped the land beyond.

Fort Steuben was named for Baron Von Steuben, the military genius who guided General George Washington during the American Revolution. When it was no longer needed, homesteads sprouted around it, attracting Revolutionary War veterans, Quakers and adventurers.

The West’s boundaries moved on. Yet the determination of Steubenville’s melting-pot people remained.

“This is America, it is symbolic of all that we are – the people, the hardships we endure, the values we hold true,” says Rita Lee, 57, a lifelong resident and mother of nine. “And like most of America outside of Washington, we want a better future for ourselves but we do not rely on the government to provide it.”

Welcome to one of Ohio’s eastern gateways, a center of the American political experience, 25 minutes from Pittsburgh, one minute from Weirton, W.Va. – and a lifetime away from Washington.

The town’s east entrance is spectacular in a post-industrial sort of way: Remains of the formerly mammoth Weirton Steel plant stand in the distance; smokestacks and rail yards, mostly unused for a generation, litter the foreground – along with an imposing suspension bridge that seems wildly out of place along the edge of Appalachia.

It took 30 years, tons of bureaucracy, even more pork and, finally, the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to build the inverted-Y-shaped concrete-and-steel structure. It was started in the 1960s but, by the time it was completed in the ’90s, the region that once thrived on coal, steel and timber had died.

With the death of industry went people; more folks left the Steubenville-Weirton region between 1980 and 2000 than any other urban area.

Ohio is at center-stage of this week’s Republican primary process. (It apparently is always center-stage for President Obama; he has visited the state 18 times since taking office, and Vice President Joe Biden has visited half as often.)

True to her bellwether status, Ohio supported Obama in 2008, the tenth election in which Ohio was a measure of the country’s political direction.

This year, where Ohio is headed seems unclear.

Ohio voters in 2010 were angry at the president and at Democrats, and they showed it in voting booths: Republicans swept every statewide office, defeating a sitting governor and four other incumbent executives, adding 13 seats in the Ohio House and two in the Ohio Senate.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.