NORTH CANTON, Ohio — As searchlight beams lit low gray clouds above a baseball field jammed with a throng of GOP partisans, county Commissioner Janet Creighton drew a cheer, proclaiming, “As Stark County goes, so goes Ohio, and so goes the nation!”
Amid plunging temperatures Friday night, most of the thousands had been waiting at Hoover High School for hours at the rally for Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).
They were gathered in a county that’s voted for the Ohio winner in five of the last six presidential elections, in a state that’s been a building block of the electoral vote majority of every successful Republican White House candidate in history.
Nationally, this is already the most expensive, and may end up being the most competitive, presidential race in history, and no state reflects those stakes more than Ohio.
“I don’t recall a campaign where voters on both sides [were] so committed and on both sides concerned about the outcome,” said Curt Steiner, who served as chief of staff to former Republican Ohio Gov. George Voinovich. “The perception of a pretty close race adds to the intensity.”
And that intensity started early.
“We’ve been seeing back-to-back-to-back [political] television commercials since May,” said David J. Leland, a former Democratic state chairman. “The kind of effort that used to go on for the last two months started here in late April.”
Both campaigns have poured money into the state, but their most precious resource at this point is their candidates’ time.
Their schedules in the waning days of the race reflect the premium they place on the state’s 18 electoral votes. President Obama was in Cleveland on Thursday. He’ll be in Youngstown on Monday with former President Bill Clinton, and is scheduled to return again Wednesday for stops in Cincinnati and Akron.
Mr. Romney campaigned in the state Thursday before joining Mr. Ryan in North Canton on Friday night. Mr. Ryan then headed on a bus tour of the state. Mr. Romney has canceled today’s schedule in Virginia because of the looming storm, and is reported to be instead returning to the Buckeye State.
Ohio is used to being a presidential battleground, but its political character may have shifted. Traditionally, its political DNA is that of a Republican-leaning state that Democrats can carry in a good year. For most of this year, however, Mr. Obama enjoyed polling leads here that outperform his national numbers.
But the GOP chairman, Robert Bennett, says he likes the direction of the state.
“I feel extremely confident; we have been moving literally every single night [in internal polling],” he said. “We’re exceeding expectations in our suburban communities, places like Rocky River — on the west shore of Cleveland — Dublin, New Albany [in the center of the state]. It’s closing rapidly.”
The slow pace of the recovery has been a drag on the President’s re-election bid nationally, but a factor in his favor here is that Ohio’s economy has bounced back faster than many other states. With gains in manufacturing jobs among other sectors, its unemployment rate is 7 percent, well under the national average.
Trying to project a sense of momentum in the final days, both contend that their ground games will exceed all previous efforts over the next 10 days. But there is a general consensus that here — as in other key states — the Obama camp enjoys the upper hand on the ground.
The Obama team has many more offices — 137 to 39 — and they’ve been here much longer. Faced with a protracted primary battle, the Romney campaign was not able to turn its attention to the general election grass-roots until the late spring.
The Obama organizers, by contrast, have had a nucleus of field organizers here since the last campaign.
Mr. Steiner, the GOP consultant, said the incumbent’s edge in a physical presence in the state extends from the bottom to the top.
“One thing that people sometimes forget: Romney has been campaigning in Ohio since the spring, Obama has been campaigning here for five years,” he said. “He has campaigned here so much and met so many people, and I do think that is one of his advantages.”
By contrast, he described the Romney campaign’s physical presence in the state as “robust but brief.”
It’s estimated that as many as a third of the state’s votes will have been cast before Election Day. Several polls have suggested that Mr. Obama enjoys a significant edge with votes already cast.
“People can overstate what [get-out-the-vote] can do, but when you’re talking about margins this close — one or two or three points — then having that kind of effort makes the difference,” Mr. Leland said.
“We do respect their ground game, [but] we’re catching up to them,” the GOP’s Mr. Bennett said. “I feel good. It’s roundup time now.”
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O’Toole is politics editor for the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O’Toole at: email@example.com.