NORTH CANTON, Ohio -- As searchlight beams lit low gray clouds above a baseball field jammed with a chilled throng of Republican partisans, county Commissioner Janet Creighton drew a cheer, proclaiming, "As Stark County goes, so goes Ohio, and so goes the nation!"
Amid plunging temperatures here Friday night, most of the thousands had been waiting at Hoover High School for hours at the rally for Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin. 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 in the race 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 Barack Obama was in Cleveland on Thursday night. He'll be back in Youngstown on Monday with former President Bill Clinton, and is scheduled to return again Wednesday for stops in Cincinnati and Akron.
Mr. Romney also campaigned in the state Thursday before joining Mr. Ryan for their rally here Friday night. Mr. Ryan then headed out on a bus tour of the state. Mr. Romney has canceled his Sunday schedule in Virginia due to the looming storm, and is reported to be instead returning again 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 has enjoyed polling leads here that outperform his national numbers.
In Ohio, as elsewhere, those margins have narrowed since the first presidential debate, but the incumbent still appears ahead in a state that would be all but essential for Mr. Romney to assemble an electoral vote majority. Mr. Obama has led with margins as large as five points in eight of the 11 public polls released in the last 10 days. The other three were tied. The RealClearPolitics statistics show Mr. Obama leads the state by 2.3 percent.
"What I think is interesting about this race, from my perspective, is it appears that Ohio is the bulwark for the president," Mr. Leland said. "My view of Ohio, even as party chair, was that we were traditionally a few points generically behind the rest of the nation for Democrats. Clinton won in '92 by under 100,000 votes. But now we may be a leading indicator rather than a lagging one."
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."
Mr. Obama won in 2008 carrying Lake Erie counties stretching from Toledo to Cleveland and down though Akron. He had big margins in the communities surrounding Dayton and Columbus. He was the first Democrat in decades to carry Cincinnati's Hamilton County, and he flipped Stark County, whose Republican majority in 2004 was essential to President George W. Bush's narrow win over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Waiting in a line hundreds of yards long in North Canton on Friday were examples of the voters Mr. Bennett and Mr. Romney are counting on.
"I don't like Obama; anyone would be better. We need more jobs." said Ken Giebel, a Stark County voter who said he runs a small cleaning business. "I think the guy is a big phony."
Joyce Robinson of Massillon, Ohio, said she would be voting for Mr. Romney because, "I'm pro-life -- and the economy."
The slow pace of the recovery has been a drag on the president's re-election bid across the country, but one 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.
Walking into a rally for the president on the Cleveland lakefront Thursday, Jackie Fisk of Willowick, Ohio, wore a blue United Auto Workers T-shirt with gold lettering that said, under a picture of Mr. Obama, "He Saved Our Jobs."
"He stood up for the autoworkers; he stands up for the middle class," she said.
She's retired from a job as a forklift driver at GM's Parma plant, and said she's been spending her recent hours volunteering at one of the Obama for America offices that dot the state, "making those phone calls that I don't like to get myself."
"Barack Obama is going to win Ohio because of the auto rescue -- period, end of statement," said Jim Ruvolo, a former state Democratic party chairman. "Without that, Ohio wouldn't even be in play."
Mr. Ruvolo is also a former party chairman in Lucas County, which is dominated by Toledo, and is home to a Chrysler Jeep plant. He predicted that the bailout issue would pad Mr. Obama's margins all across the northern tier of the state.
"If turnout is anywhere near '08 [in those counties], Obama is going to win," he predicted.
Mr. Romney contends, as he did in the last debate in Boca Raton, Fla., that his controversial "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed in November 2008 has been misinterpreted.
At the North Canton rally, Sen. Rob Portman, a key Ohio ally, told the crowd that the managed bankruptcy that Mr. Romney advocated was not much different from the government supervised arrangement that saved GM and Chrysler. Democrats contend that the Romney position was unrealistic, however, in light of the evaporation of credit in the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis. Without the massive federal aid provided by the Bush and Obama administrations, they contend, the firms would have faced liquidation.
"I think the auto rescue plan has had a huge impact -- a huge impact with some of the white ethnic voters that the president might be having problems with in other states," said Mr. Leland, the former Democratic official.
Mr. Bennett, the GOP chair, acknowledged the auto issue had created a headwind against his candidate, but said it would not determine the outcome. "Here's the thing about it. I agree that there's a little problem with some of the autoworkers, but we're picking up other union workers. Look at where Paul Ryan is going this weekend," he said, pointing to an itinerary that included events in coal mining and shale gas regions of the state's southeast.
The Republican campaign has been assailing the administration's energy policies for more than a year, contending that environmental regulations were a threat to energy employment. Democrats counter that oil and gas drilling have actually climbed during the last four years. And, they note, Mr. Romney was an outspoken opponent of polluting coal-fired plants as governor of Massachusetts.
Asked in a recent interview whether the "war on coal" rhetoric was hurting his candidate, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said, "What our data says is that people understand that Gov. Romney is speaking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue."
Pressing their messages, both campaigns boast of extensive, sophisticated grass-roots operations throughout the state. 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 more offices -- 137 to 39 -- and has 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 late spring. The Obama organizers, by contrast, have had a nucleus of field organizers here since the last campaign.
Mr. Steiner, the GOP consultant, noted that 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."
Recently, and for the duration of their battle, both camp's priorities have shifted from voter identification and persuasion to early and absentee voting. Mr. Obama opened his speech at Thursday's rally in Cleveland with a reminder that he had just voted early and an appeal to the crowd to do the same. The next night, Mr. Portman urged the Stark County Republicans to do the same.
It's estimated that as many as a third of the state's votes will have been cast before Election Day. Several public 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."electionspresident
Politics editor James O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 28, 2012 4:00 AM