VANDALIA, Ohio — Ohio has emerged as the presidential race’s undisputed focus. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are making multiple stops this week alone in a state that’s trending toward the president, endangering Romney’s White House hopes.
The popularity of Obama’s auto industry bailout, and a better-than-average local economy, are undermining Romney’s call for Ohioans to return to their GOP-leaning ways, which were crucial to George W. Bush’s two elections. Ohio has 18 electoral votes, seventh most in the nation, and no Republican has won the White House without carrying it.
Romney is scrambling to reverse the polls that show Obama ahead. On Tuesday, he made the first of his four planned Ohio stops this week, joining his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, for a rally near Dayton. On Wednesday, Obama will visit the college towns of Kent and Bowling Green, and Romney’s bus tour will stop in the Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo areas.
"If this president persists on the road of making it harder and harder for small businesses to grow and thrive, he’s going to slowly but surely weaken our economy and turn us into Greece," Romney told supporters Tuesday in Vandalia. He said the Obama administration has put government between patients and their doctors, and is picking winners and losers in private business.
"That is not the America that built Ohio!" Romney declared.
His tone was urgent, but the points were standard campaign language from Romney. His allies hope they will start resonating in this crucial state.
Not even Florida has seen as many presidential TV campaign ads as Ohio, and neither nominee goes very long without visiting or talking about the state. When Obama touted his "decision to save the auto industry" on CBS’ "60 Minutes" on Sunday, he mentioned not the major car-making state of Michigan but Ohio, which focuses more on car parts. "One in eight jobs in Ohio is dependent on the auto industry," Obama said.
Four new polls underscore Romney’s serious problems in Ohio. Surveys by NBC and Fox News found Obama ahead by 7 percentage points. A poll by a group of Ohio newspapers showed him leading by 5. And a Washington Post poll released Tuesday found the president leading Romney by 8 points. All of Obama’s leads were outside the polls’ margins of error.
One problem for Romney is that Ohio’s 7.2 percent unemployment rate is below the national average, as the Republican governor, John Kasich, often reminds residents.
"We are up 122,000 jobs," Kasich told a panel during the Republican convention last month. "The auto industry job growth is 1,200," he said, perhaps trying to play down that sector’s role.
Kasich says he supports Romney and Ohio would do even better if Obama were replaced. But the governor’s understandable pride in the state’s job growth runs counter to Romney’s message that Obama is an economic failure.
House Speaker John Boehner, from the Cincinnati area, told reporters last week in Washington: "One of the things that probably works against Romney in Ohio is the fact that Gov. Kasich has done such a good job of fixing government regulations in the state, attracting new businesses to the state."
"People are still concerned about jobs in Ohio," Boehner said, "but it certainly isn’t like you see in some other states."
Still, the Fox News poll suggests there’s room for Romney to advance. Nearly one in three Ohio voters said they are "not at all satisfied" with the way things are going in the country, and an additional 26 percent are "not very satisfied." Only 7 percent are "very satisfied," and 34 percent are "somewhat satisfied."
Romney is trying to tap that discontent. But he’s having mixed success with his chief target: white, working class voters who are socially conservative and often have union backgrounds. A generation ago they were called "Reagan Democrats."
In 2009, Obama’s administration used billions of taxpayer dollars to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat while they reorganized through bankruptcy. Romney said the companies should have been allowed to enter bankruptcy without government help. But an array of officials at the time said the automakers would have gone under without it.
GM still owes the government about $25 billion. But many workers in Ohio and elsewhere consider the auto bailout a success.
It affected thousands of businesses, some of them fairly small, that make an array of products that go into vehicles, new and used. Jeff Gase, a UAW union member who introduced Obama at a Columbus rally last week, credited the president with saving the paint company where he works. "Mom and pop body shops" buy the paint, Gase said, and now his plant is running "full steam ahead."
Romney notes that many Ohio car dealerships went out of business during the industry reorganization.
But he is having trouble connecting with middle class Ohioans, said Tony Tenorio, who hears political conversations in his job as an Applebee’s restaurant manager. In June, when he worked in Elyria, Tenorio said many Ohio residents seemed ready to bail on Obama. Now, working at an Applebee’s in the more affluent town of West Lake, Tenorio says those same people seem unmoved by Romney.
Still, the Republican is pushing hard. Romney has forced Obama to run ads in Ohio defending the administration’s handling of China trade and the U.S. coal industry. Romney’s ads say government regulations are stifling the energy industry and Obama hasn’t been tough enough on China’s protection of its exporters, two claims the administration rejects.
Ohio, meanwhile, appears to be the only state this week where Obama’s campaign is still airing a 60-second ad called "The Question," which disputes Romney’s claim that Americans are worse off than they were four years ago.
Romney political director Rich Beeson told reporters Tuesday that Obama’s campaign is prematurely "spiking the ball at the 30-yard line." He said Romney is within striking distance in Ohio.
Charles Babington reported from Washington.