Fighting Hand-to-Hand for So-Goes-the-Nation Ohio

Oct. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Only a risk-taker with the guts of a cat burglar, or someone with lots of money to burn, would bet the ranch on this year’s close U.S. presidential race.

A better bet: whoever wins Ohio, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, will win the presidency.

It’s the only state that has voted for the victor in the past 12 presidential elections. It is the embodiment of Middle America and swings back and forth from Republican red to Democratic blue. Right now, it looks blueish purple.

If either candidate gains some momentum in the home stretch and wins by two, three points or more, the Electoral College won’t matter. If this year resembles one of the razor tight contests -- 1960, 1968, 1976 and 2000 -- it’s the Electoral College, awarding votes by states, that will settle the outcome.

Under that scenario, it’s almost impossible to see a pathway to a Romney victory without Ohio’s 18 electoral votes. It’s more feasible, though still unlikely, that the president could win 270 electoral votes without the Buckeye state.

The centrality of this state is reflected in the campaigns’ heavy presence. In the past seven weeks, Obama has had nine events in Ohio and Vice President Joe Biden has had five. Romney, in that stretch, has made 20 Ohio appearances and his running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, has had 14.

Clinton, Springsteen

Almost every day, the creme de la creme of surrogates descend on the state. Last week, it was former President Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen for the Democrats. Ryan arrived the day after the Oct. 16 presidential debate, accompanied by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Both sides are flooding the airwaves. Over just the past 30 days, Obama and his super political action committee have spent $26 million on television advertising in Ohio. Romney, his super-PAC and Karl Rove’s outside group have spent $20 million over that period. Separately, huge amounts are being disbursed by the campaigns and others on efforts to turn out the vote.

The intensity was evident at campaign appearances last week. In Berea, Ryan told the crowd that Ohio is “the battleground of the battlegrounds.”

A few hours later, at a rally at Ohio University in Athens, the president mentioned his opponent and the crowd booed. “Don’t boo, vote,” he replied.

The two parties’ state chairmen, among the best in the country, realize the stakes, though their perspectives are different.

“We’re now up by a couple,” says Bob Bennett, the Republicans’ Ohio chief.

“We’ve got a lead in the middle single digits,” says Chris Redfern, his Democratic counterpart.

Both boast about unprecedented organization and infrastructure resources. Republicans believe they have their best-ever turnout operation. The Obama organization, far superior in 2008, never left the state and has a markedly more sophisticated operation this time.

For Bennett, “it’s all going to come down to the economy.” Redfern says the election can be summed up in four words: “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” a paraphrase of Romney’s position on what proved to be the successful bailout of the auto industry, which is a big employer in Ohio.

The state’s economy is like the proverbial glass half full, or half empty, depending on your perspective. The jobless rate is 7 percent, below the national average and down sharply from the 10.6 percent level it reached shortly after Obama took office. At least 11,100 jobs, according to Bloomberg Government, have been saved by the auto rescue and indirectly, probably considerably more. There are elements of real economic vibrancy.

Job Creation

At the same time, Ohio has lost 239,800 jobs over the past four years and there are pockets that reflect a durable and deep recession. Almost one-quarter of home mortgages are underwater, meaning the debt is larger than the value of the home.

Thus, Obama has to be careful in heralding a resurgent economy. Nevertheless, he was buoyant in Athens a few days ago: “We’ve added more than 5 million new jobs, more manufacturing jobs than any time since the 1990s,” he said. “The unemployment rate has fallen from 10 percent to 7.8 percent. Foreclosures are at their lowest in five years. Home values are on the rise. Stock market has doubled. Manufacturing is coming back. Assembly lines are putting folks back to work.”

Romney dwells on the glass that’s half empty, yet he also faces a conundrum on the economy. Even as the candidate runs around Ohio talking about difficult times, Republican Governor John Kasich, who craves higher office someday, is bragging about the state’s recovery.

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster with more than 40 years of experience surveying Ohioans, recently conducted a focus group of a dozen undecided voters in suburban Columbus. The session crystallized the ambivalence toward the two candidates among these voters who may hold the balance in the most important state. Hart says they’ll decide in the final weeks and will be looking ahead, not back, “based on who will best get the economy moving and who will fight for them.”

If they split, Ohio tilts Obama, given his superior political infrastructure.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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