Most every campaign faces a keep-your-chin-up period, and for Mitt Romney it kicked in last week as he drove across Ohio in a bus adorned with a "More Jobs, More Take-Home Pay" logo.
Campaign staffers did their best to exude upbeat calm amid the grim reality: Romney is well on his way to losing the Buckeye State.
"If we lose Ohio, can we still win? I say if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas,'' political director Rich Beeson gamely told reporters bugging him about the grim Ohio poll numbers. "I just don't deal in if-then statements."
A year ago, nobody would have predicted that Ohio — a state no Republican has won the presidency without — would be slipping away from the GOP nominee at this point in the race.
This is a state, after all, loaded with working-class white voters — the demographic supposedly toughest for President Barack Obama to crack. This is where Hillary Clinton trounced Obama in the 2008 primary, where many pundits saw Obama's embrace of gay marriage as deadly with a large block of socially conservative voters, and where a sizable chunk of the state is Appalachian mining country and hostile to Obama.
But as Romney and running mate Paul Ryan spent three days last week campaigning across Ohio, their challenge was unmistakable. A slew of nonpartisan polls show Obama leading by anywhere from 4 percentage points to 10, and several found Obama above the 50 percent threshold.
"Two words: auto rescue," explained Democratic consultant Jim Ruvolo, ticking off the major auto manufacturers in his hometown of Toledo.
"For the first time in two decades, they're hiring off the street," said the former state Democratic Party chairman. "The economy's coming back here, and people know Obama stuck his neck out to save the auto industry."
While manufacturing has steadily declined in recent decades, nearly 850,000 jobs in Ohio are linked to the auto industry, and just about every resident here knows someone in the business.
TV ads for months have reminded Ohioans that Obama supported the $82 billion rescue of Chrysler and GM while Romney opposed it and wrote a 2008 op-ed column headlined, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
"That would have meant walking away from an industry that supports one in eight Ohio jobs. It supports businesses in 82 of 88 Ohio counties," the president reminded a raucous crowd of more than 5,000 people last week at Bowling Green State University.
"So when (Romney) said that, I said, 'No, I'm going to bet on America; I'm betting on American workers. I'm betting on American industry.' And today, the American auto industry has come roaring back with nearly 250,000 new jobs."
The Obama campaign usually spends more time warning voters what a Romney presidency might mean, rather than touting the president's record with a still-sputtering economy.
In Ohio, though, Obama has a positive story to tell. The unemployment rate is 7.2 percent — high, but more than a percentage point lower than the national unemployment rate.
"I hope you all know that Ohio's coming back. From 48th in job creation to No. 4 — No. 1 in the Midwest. From 89 cents in a rainy-day fund to a half a million dollars. And we have grown 123,000 jobs in the state of Ohio. Our families are going back to work," Republican Gov. John Kasich declared to a crowd of about 2,000 people at a Romney rally in Westerville last week.
Not an especially helpful message for a Republican nominee arguing that the country is on the wrong track.
• • •
Among presidential election battleground states, two stand above the rest: Ohio and Florida.
No Republican has ever been elected without winning Ohio, and the last Democrat to win the presidency without Ohio was John F. Kennedy.
Florida has had its own mythical status in presidential elections since Bush-Gore in 2000. It also is far and away the biggest battleground state, with 29 electoral votes (up from 27 four years ago thanks to population growth), compared to 18 for Ohio (down from 20 two years ago due to shrinking population).
Losing Florida would definitely cost Romney the presidency.
Losing Ohio probably would, but he would have several more paths to winning without it.
Don't take it too hard Sunshine State, but for all the presidential campaign attention showered on Florida, Ohio is still tops. Obama has made 13 Ohio trips this year compared to 10 Florida visits. Romney since May has visited Ohio 10 times, compared to seven Florida trips.
The Obama campaign and allied independent groups have spent about $48 million blanketing Ohio in TV ads, compared to $43 million by Romney and other Republican groups. In much more expensive Florida, Democrats have spent more than $40 million on TV, and Republicans more than $47 million.
The two battlegrounds have at least one uncanny similarity: Controversial governors who keep undercutting the Romney campaign's emphasis on a deeply troubled economy under the Obama administration.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has run TV ads touting Florida's improving economy under his watch at the same time the Romney campaign has been arguing Florida has fared terribly during the Obama administration.
Ohio Gov. Kasich, who like Scott narrowly won office in the 2010 Republican wave, has been hailing Ohio's improving economy, too. He minimizes the significance of the auto rescue, saying most of Ohio's job gains are due to his pro-business policies.
"Every day I have to face the head winds that come from Washington," he told the Romney rally in Westerville.
Democrats see Kasich as an asset for Obama in Ohio. The pugnacious governor tried to pass an aggressive bill restricting collective bargaining for unions, even normally GOP-friendly police and fire unions.
Union-friendly Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to rescind the law — endorsed by Romney — which helped unify and mobilize unions more than any time in recent decades.
"Gov. Kasich really unleashed a beast here," said state Democratic Party spokesman Jerid Kurtz, noting that the national Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed the Republican nominee for president for the past three cycles, recently announced it would make no endorsement this year.
• • •
Romney expected the 2012 election to be a referendum on the incumbent, but Ohio may provide the clearest evidence that it has turned into a choice between two candidates. After a summer of ads casting Romney as a heartless venture capitalist and jobs outsourcer, Romney looks to many Ohioans less like a jobs creator than a guy who would fire them.
A Washington Post poll released last week found 50 percent of Ohio voters think Obama would do a better job on the economy and 43 percent think Romney. Barely 1 in 3 said Romney would do more to advance the interests of the middle class, while 6 in 10 said Obama would.
Even among the enthusiastic crowds who turned out to cheer Romney last week at rallies near Dayton, it was easy to find supporters predicting Obama will win or offering advice for what Romney needs to do.
"I see all these Obama ads saying Romney would raise taxes on the middle class. I see a lot of Romney ads, but I don't see them doing anything to counter that message," said Mark Manning, a retired letter carrier from Dayton.
"Too many Catholics I know are voting for Obama, and Romney needs to utilize his running mate more to secure the Catholic vote," said Saundra Woodruff, a stay-at-home mother in Westerville.
Romney lately has started airing TV spots stressing his compassion, and in Ohio he sounded like a trade warrior vowing to challenge China's trade practices.
He can regain the momentum, his supporters insisted, especially with a strong performance Wednesday night in the first presidential debate.
But early voting in the Buckeye State starts Tuesday, the clock is ticking, and Romney is losing a state he can't afford to lose.
He sounded incredulous about that at times last week.
"How in the world these kids think they ought to vote for Barack Obama is beyond me," Romney told a crowd in Vandalia. "It's like, 'Look at your friends. Half of you can't find work. Don't you understand where he's taking this country?' "
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
Regardless of who you support, which candidate do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy?
How much credit, if any, do you think Obama deserves for the state of Ohio's economy?
Source: Washington Post Sept. 19-23 poll