Northwest Ohio was the center of the political universe a few days ago, and it was fun while it lasted. I doubt Mitt Romney gained many converts among the motorists who were stuck in the long backup on I-75 waiting for him to get out of downtown Toledo Wednesday evening, but let that go.
It was heartwarming to see President Obama in Bowling Green and his Republican challenger in Toledo on the same day. The most recent of their many, many visits to Ohio this year reminded us that our state is poised to decide the election.
If you believe the latest media and academic polls, Mr. Obama has widened his lead in Ohio over Mr. Romney from too close to call to approaching landslide territory. That gap is likely to narrow again, but the GOP nominee needs to articulate a more compelling and compassionate message than he is offering Ohioans at the moment.
For now, polls of likely voters suggest, Ohioans tend to believe that the President cares about their needs and problems, while they think a Romney administration would favor the rich. That perception is a big obstacle for the challenger to overcome.
Around Labor Day, several polls reported that the President and Mr. Romney were virtually tied in Ohio. Last Sunday, The Blade and the state's other largest newspapers published a poll they hired the University of Cincinnati to conduct; it gave Mr. Obama a lead of 51 percent to 46 percent over Mr. Romney.
Two days later, a Washington Post poll put the President 8 percentage points up. And on the day both nominees came to the Toledo area, a poll by the New York Times and CBS News gave Mr. Obama an astonishing 10-point advantage in our state.
What accounts for Mr. Romney's abrupt apparent decline -- or, put another way, Mr. Obama's enhanced appeal -- in Ohio? One possibility: Not only is our state's unemployment rate lower than the national rate -- although still too high -- but the gap between the two has grown. So Mr. Romney's efforts to blame the President for perpetuating a lousy economy may not be striking as responsive a chord here as it might in some other states.
Then there was Mr. Romney's speech at a private fund-raiser, which came to light as the Ohio polls were conducted, that dismissed 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders addicted to government handouts. Many Ohioans likely saw themselves in that harsh portrayal, and resented it. They may be ready to respond in kind to Mr. Romney's assertion that "my job is not to worry about those people."
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown defines the choice the state's voters face this way: "Do you want Romney-Bush policies or Obama-Clinton policies?"
Senator Brown is hardly a dispassionate observer: The freshman Democrat's own re-election bid will be greatly affected by how Mr. Obama performs at the top of the Ohio ticket in November. The same polls that showed the President comfortably ahead last week gave Mr. Brown a lead of 7 to 10 points over his Republican challenger, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
"The President is speaking to a group of voters who have not always followed him -- white, working-class, nonunion voters," Mr. Brown told me late last week. "It's not his campaign; it's what he's done on the auto rescue and trade enforcement and collective bargaining."
Diving deeper into the various polls offers the Romney campaign no more comfort than looking at their top-line results. On the election's key issue, The Blade's poll reported that Ohio voters said they think the President would do a better job than Mr. Romney of improving economic conditions in our state.
And contrary to Mr. Romney's vow to repeal Obamacare, the Ohioans surveyed were more likely to say they want to keep, or even expand, the Affordable Care Act than to get rid of it.
A new poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found deep skepticism among Ohio voters about GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program starting in the next decade. On Medicare as well as the economy, Ohioans said they favor the President over Mr. Romney.
According to the Times-CBS poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, three out of five Ohio voters said they think the federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors has been a success. If you've forgotten that the President promoted the auto bailout, while Mr. Romney -- the son of a former Detroit automaker's chief executive -- opposed it, the Obama campaign will be sure to remind you incessantly through Election Day.
The poll also gave the President a big edge among Ohioans on national security, foreign policy, and taxes -- traditional Republican strengths -- as well as Mideast policy, immigration, and abortion rights. Mr. Romney did better on addressing the federal deficit.
"Wedge" social issues that Republicans often seek to exploit aren't cutting a lot of ice in Ohio. Half of the state voters in The Blade's poll said the nominees' positions on same-sex marriage -- the President favors it, Mr. Romney opposes it -- won't affect their vote.
Republican stalwarts such as Karl Rove insist that Mr. Romney can win the election even if he loses Ohio. But he would be the first GOP presidential nominee in history to do so, and it would be hard -- while not impossible -- to make the Electoral College numbers add up.
Although the share of Ohio voters who call themselves undecided is small, more than five weeks remain before the election. As early voting begins on Tuesday, neither campaign is foolish enough to conclude that the race in Ohio is over.
But Mr. Romney has a lot of ground to make up. He needs to figure out -- quickly -- how to persuade Ohioans, and voters across the country, that his vision of America's future and the role of government is more appealing than Mr. Obama's.
The first presidential debate on Wednesday will give him that opportunity. A credible expression of understanding and care aimed at Ohioans and other Americans who are struggling would be a good start.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: email@example.com
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