COLUMBUS - Welcome to Ohio, the home of the presidential race.
That's the sign that Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said the state should have placed wherever motorists drive into Ohio. Because of the razor-thin outcome in the 2000 presidential race, the candidates have intensified their focus on swing states including Ohio.
Since 1860, no Republican has won the White House without carrying Ohio. Ohio voters in the 20th century chose the winner 22 of 24 times. The exceptions were in 1960 with John F. Kennedy, who defeated Richard Nixon, and 1944 with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose opponent, Thomas Dewey, had Ohio Gov. John Bricker as his running mate.
"Ohio always has been a coalition-building state," said Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. "It's a swing state for a good reason because it does mirror the nation. You get tired of hearing it, but no Republican can win without carrying Ohio."
But three weeks before the 2000 election, Al Gore's campaign pulled its TV advertising from Ohio. Thanks to a skillful get-out-the-vote effort, Mr. Gore lost to George W. Bush by only 3.5 percentage points.
Democrat John Kerry, a four-term U.S. senator from Massachusetts, hasn't made the same mistake.
In several campaign appearances, former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn said Mr. Kerry pledged he would not surrender Ohio's 20 electoral votes.
Unlike Mr. Gore in 2000, Democrats this year - as part of a nationwide effort - successfully challenged the nominating petition signatures that backers of Ralph Nader collected to get on the Ohio presidential ballot as an independent.
In 2000, Mr. Nader, as the Green Party candidate, received 2.5 percent of the vote in Ohio, with Mr. Bush at 50 percent and 46.5 percent for Mr. Gore.
Over the past few weeks, some political observers have said that whoever wins two of three states - Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida - will win the race.
"This year, it's hard to imagine that President Bush can be re-elected without carrying Ohio," Mr. Asher said.
Mr. Bush's campaign has tried to match the Democratic ground game with a grass-roots effort.
Mr. Kerry and his running mate, U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, have targeted Mr. Bush's handling of the economy in their Ohio campaign visits.
Ohio ranks third - behind California and Texas - in the number of manufacturing jobs lost at 160,700 since 2001, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Ohio had a net increase of 5,500 jobs in September, the Labor Department said.
Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, said more than 90 percent of Ohio's gross payroll job growth last month was in industries that typically pay more than the national average. "Putting money back into the pockets of taxpayers and helping business invest and expand has put Ohio on the right track toward growth and prosperity," Mr. Madden said.
A major question in Ohio this year is how social and culture issues will affect the outcome.
A coalition of religious and conservative groups collected enough signatures of registered voters to add a proposed ban on same-sex marriage to Ohio's Constitution on Tuesday's ballot.
Mr. Bush has pushed for a federal constitutional amendment. Mr. Kerry also has said he is against same-sex marriage, but he is against a federal constitutional amendment.
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