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Ohio Wooed at Convention as ‘Center of the Universe’

Ohio Wooed at Democratic Convention as ‘Center of the Universe’
Diana Nazelli, a delegate from Ohio, wears an "Ohio worker bee" hat before the start of day two of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Standing only a few feet away from the stage at the Democratic National Convention with Ohio’s delegates, Diana Nazelli says she’s both wooed and pressured.

Besides the prime viewing location inside the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the parade of Ohio speakers featured on stage, Buckeye State delegates have heard from party luminaries who tell them they are at ground zero for the presidential race and responsible for Barack Obama’s re-election.

“I feel appreciated,” said Nazelli, 68, a saleswoman from suburban Cleveland wearing a hat with a small state flag attached to the back and a banner that read, “Ohio Worker Bee 4 Obama.” “It makes me nervous that Ohio could be that important.”

With Ohio and its 18 electoral votes poised to help decide the U.S. election, the state’s 235 delegates and alternates to the Democratic convention are being courted and urged to work for Obama’s re-election as if civilization depends on it.

“No pressure, Ohio, but it’s all on you,” Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, told delegates at their Sept. 4 breakfast. “The fate of the free world is on your shoulders.”

In an interview after the speech, Gaspard said “every election is decided by Ohio, basically” because the state is a microcosm of the U.S. In presidential politics, it is “the center of the universe,” he said.

Battleground Stats

The battleground of 11.5 million residents, the seventh-largest U.S. state, put President George W. Bush over the top for re-election in 2004 and helped elect Obama in 2008 with 51.5 percent of the vote. Republicans took control of the governor’s office with John Kasich in 2010, as well as all other statewide executive offices.

The jobless rate in the Buckeye State was 7.2 percent in July, the lowest since September 2008 and below the national rate of 8.3 percent. Ohio’s improvement in economic health ranks sixth in the U.S. from the first quarter of 2011 through the first quarter this year, the most recent data available, based on the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.

Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said there’s “almost no credible path” for Republican nominee Mitt Romney to get the 270 electoral votes he needs to win without Ohio.

No Republican has won the presidency without also capturing Ohio, and the last Democrat to do so was John Kennedy in 1960. Obama has made 27 trips to Ohio since he took office, including 11 this year, while Romney has made 16 separate trips to the state for 33 political events since 2011, the campaigns said.

“If we win Ohio, he will be president,” Messina told reporters after speaking to the Ohio delegation yesterday.

No Accident

Messina said the only other state delegations he has addressed so far are from Colorado, another battleground state, and his home state of Montana because “C’mon on, gotta say ‘hi’ to the parents.”

It’s no accident that convention organizers are lavishing attention on Ohio delegates because it’s the best time for the campaign to reach the people they will rely on to deliver votes on the ground, said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to presidential candidates Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Had either of those candidates carried Ohio, they may have been elected, he said.

“It’s a critical moment,” Devine said. “It can really pay dividends in the campaign.”

Prominent Placement

The wooing of battleground-state delegations includes making sure there’s prominent placement in the convention hall and a good representation of speakers from those states, as well as having well-known party officials speak to the delegates, said Michael Meehan, a senior adviser for Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and chief executive officer of Venn Squared Communications in Washington. He said he’s working this week as a volunteer battleground media captain for the convention staff and Obama campaign.

Among his duties are connecting with Ohio reporters covering the convention to pitch local stories about delegates and speakers, he said. Last night, Meehan and his team helped arrange 15 interviews with Ohio television stations, including six with Elaine Brye of Winona, Ohio, who introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, Meehan said in a telephone interview.

Brye was one of four Ohioans who spoke from the podium last night, including former Governor Ted Strickland, a national campaign co-chairman for Obama who brought the delegates to their feet with lines like: “If Mitt Romney was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”

‘Highly Motivated’

“One of the major benefits is that you have party activists who are highly motivated when they leave,” Meehan said in an interview.

Messina told the delegates that because of the saturation of television ads in Ohio, voters will want to throw their TV out the window at some point -- and that’s when they will turn to neighbors, friends and people they trust to make their decision about which candidate to support.

“That’s the moment when all of you are going to come in,” he said.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, who was selected as a convention parliamentarian, said all the attention paid to Ohio will help the campaign.

“Ohio feels special, and those who’ll be spreading the word and working hard in the fields of Ohio to turn out the vote will feel extraordinarily motivated and extraordinarily dedicated to the cause,” Coleman said in an interview.

2016 Pageants

The convention also offers an opportunity for candidates contemplating a presidential run in the future to connect with delegations from battleground states and those such as Iowa with early primaries or caucuses.

That means a lot more attention and some jealousy, said Jon Heitland, a 59-year-old attorney and workers’ compensation judge from Iowa Falls. He said he has participated in every Iowa caucus since 1972.

“I have friends in California who have never seen a presidential candidate in person,” Heitland said in an interview on the convention floor.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who was the second choice behind Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Bloomberg survey of Democratic delegates in Ohio and other swing states about who they think would be their best candidate for president in 2016, spoke to both the Iowa and Ohio delegations this week.

‘Entire Campaign’

O’Malley’s message to Ohio’s delegates: “The entire campaign, our entire nation’s future, could hang in the balance of the outcome in Ohio.”

David Betras, an attorney and first-time delegate, said he feels pressure to deliver. He’s chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, a Democratic stronghold in the Youngstown area that Obama carried with 61 percent of the vote in 2008.

“It motivates me to go back to the Mahoning Valley and not sleep and work to make sure Barack Obama is elected,” Betras said in an interview after snapping pictures of the stage and the Ohio delegate arena sign from his front-row seat. “I’m going to make sure I have his back.”

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