THE thousand or so faithful Republicans who greeted President Bush at the Lucas County Recreation Center Tuesday applauded regularly and dutifully, though the crowd seemed oddly subdued at times.
Perhaps lurking in the back of the minds of the party stalwarts was a realization that Republicans in these parts haven't felt in many years: This is an election that could very well hinge, in Ohio and in the nation, on how Mr. Bush does in the traditionally Democratic Toledo area.
Republican presidential candidates are unaccustomed to being forced to scrap for votes north of the Ohio Turnpike. Now the pressure is on. It's a turn of events that may have surprised even Mr. Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, who accompanied his boss on the "Yes American Can" bus-and-fly tour from Michigan into Ohio.
In other words, the President didn't come to town to honor Lucas County; he came because somebody has taken another look at the electoral math.
History shows that Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, is a state that GOP candidates must win to gain the White House. That fact hasn't changed over the years. But in 2000, Mr. Bush took the Buckeye State by a bare four percentage points, even though Al Gore's campaign conceded defeat and virtually pulled out with several weeks to go.
That is why the Bush campaign moved into Ohio early and is conducting the political equivalent of a full-court press, including visits to urban areas like Toledo, which in the past might have been written off as impenetrable Democratic territory.
Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, campaigned in Toledo on April 28, but his operatives apparently haven't grasped how important Ohio is. They still don't have a state chairman for Mr. Kerry.
Mr. Bush is taking no chances. His rec center speech was notable not only for its unusual length - 50 minutes - but also for the insight it provided into the message the President wants to imprint on the brains of voters here.
The President assured the crowd that the economy is getting better, but he has a strong threshold of doubt to overcome. During his presidency, Ohio has lost more than 200,000 jobs, many of them good-paying work in manufacturing and many in this area.
In that respect, Ohio is not much different than the rest of the nation. Mr. Bush's answer to every economic woe, tax cuts, certainly played well to the Republican crowd in Maumee, although it is doubtful that reassurance would ring as true to a labor audience in Toledo.
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