The Battle for Ohio: Can Obama Keep His Lead?

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President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, 2012


Barack Obama’s soggy supporters looked grim as they waited for the President in a cold sideways rain. Many had been huddled for hours without umbrellas, droplets beading on their skimpy ponchos and drenching the AstroTurf on Cleveland State University’s soccer field. “I know everybody is a little wet,” Obama acknowledged when he took the makeshift stage. “I want to thank everybody who’s up there in the stands. We appreciate you.” The applause was muted. The crowd may have arrived fired up and ready to go, but the rain had doused some of the enthusiasm.

As have four bumpy years and a long, joyless campaign. As the presidential race enters the homestretch, Obama isn’t trying to replicate the poetry of his 2008 run. The President’s re-election bid is all gritty prose, a tactical battle to outorganize and outwork Mitt Romney in the handful of states that matter.

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Which is why Obama was in Cleveland on a wet and chilly Friday afternoon in October. No Republican has won the White House without carrying Ohio, and it’s unlikely Mitt Romney will be the exception. Obama has clung to a narrow but consistent lead here throughout the fall. Now, in the wake of a rocky first debate that has galvanized Romney’s supporters, he is fighting to hang on.

The visit to Cleveland State, Obama’s 14th trip to Ohio this year, was the third of four stops Obama will make at Ohio college campuses in the span of two weeks, and it’s perhaps the most important. Cuyahoga County is the most populous in Ohio, a Democratic stronghold with the biggest African-American population in the state. For Democrats, winning Ohio requires racking up votes in the state’s northeastern corner, a swath of rusting manufacturing cities like Cleveland and Youngstown with large minority populations and lots of union households, where Obama’s manufacturing message and rescue of the auto industry loom large.

Beginning with Bill Clinton in 1992, each of the party’s presidential nominees has amassed at least a 10-point advantage in this corner of Ohio. An Ohio newspaper poll in late September showed Obama with a 16-point edge over Romney in northeastern Ohio. But both sides are fighting for every vote. In the three-week span ending Sept. 30, the Cleveland area was the recipient of more television advertising than any other media market in the country save for Denver and Las Vegas. Obama and Democratic allies were responsible for 57% of the 6,500-odd ads. “This is a pivotal part of the state,” says Jen Psaki, Obama’s campaign spokeswoman. Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to tamp down the President’s advantage by targeting the area’s more conservative suburbs. On Friday, the Romney campaign unveiled a new TV ad that takes aim at Obama’s manufacturing record, and the candidate will make his own stop in northern Ohio on Tuesday.

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Fresh surveys have yet to reveal whether Romney’s superior debate performance will translate to a shift in the polls, but Ohio is as close to a must-win as it gets for the Republican. Obama’s campaign claims it’s the test of Romney’s entire candidacy. “That’s the measure. Is he going to take the lead in Ohio?” Obama senior adviser David Plouffe told reporters Thursday aboard Air Force One. “If he doesn’t, he’s not going to be President.”

The President’s team believes it has an edge in the Buckeye State, where 1 in 8 jobs is linked to the auto industry. With Obama dominating Cuyahoga County in 2008, his campaign has beefed up its infrastructure here. One of Obama’s four campaign offices situated in the county in 2008 remained open throughout his term, the only one statewide to do so, and the total number countywide has doubled, to eight. “We expect to do well there, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” says an Obama campaign staffer based in Ohio.

One of the keys will be nudging supporters to the polls for early voting, which began on Oct. 2. In Cuyahoga County, first-day numbers were “phenomenal,” Jessica Kershaw, Obama’s Ohio press secretary, wrote in an e-mail to TIME; more than three times as many Ohioans voted on the day the polls opened as did in 2008. A few even spent the previous night in tents outside the Board of Elections to be among the first in line.

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In Cleveland, Obama’s advance team hung its message in white block letters over the stadium bleachers: V-O-T-E E-A-R-L-Y. If that wasn’t enough, Obama began his remarks with the same exhortation. “Before I begin, Ohio, I just have one question: Are you registered to vote? Because if you’re not … you’ve got four days left.  If you are, you can vote right now.”

Clad in a dark overcoat as the rain hammered the crowd, Obama touted the favorable jobs report released Friday morning, which indicated that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8%, the lowest during his Administration. But unlike a prior stop Friday in Virginia, where a fiery President — jaw set, sleeves rolled, gripping the rostrum hard — rattled off a barrage of one-liners and whipped the crowd into a fervor, in Ohio he made a plea for further sacrifice.

“Here’s the bottom line, Ohio: We’ve got more work to do,” he said. “You’ve got to step up. And I know I’m preaching to the choir here, because you all are standing in the rain. But a little rain never hurt anybody. Some of these policies from the other side could hurt a whole lot of folks.”

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