Kentucky may be the site for tonight's debate between the vice presidential candidates, but the monster swing state of Ohio remains the focus of the White House dreams for President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Both the incumbent and his challenger have been in and out of the state with increasing frequency; GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan plans a trip to the Buckeye State Friday, after his tangle with Vice President Joe Biden.
And we'll be there tonight to watch the debate southwest of Columbus with the entrepreneurial, multi-generational Barnes farm family — grain, organic vegetables, honey bees, golf course — whose members' political views run the gamut.
It's in the Columbus area, particularly the "collar" counties that surround the big university town, where the Ohio race — and, quite possibly the national contest, too — will likely be decided, says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Those collar counties are more conservative than Columbus, but Obama made inroads there in 2008 with suburbanites more liberal on cultural issues and "not reflexively Republican," Green says. "They could decide the election."
Ohio is still a state that favors Obama, even after his roundly panned debate performance last week that has given Romney, the Republican, at least a small immediate boost in other key swing states.
The president had a more comfortable lead in the pre-debate polls in Ohio, when three surveys — including one by the Columbus Dispatch — had the Democrat leading Romney by up to 10 points.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released today has Obama ahead in Ohio 51-45 percent, where his supporters have dominated early voting, but down 2 percentage points from the group's previous poll. The Real Clear Politics over-time average gives the president a 1.6 percentage point edge over Romney in Ohio.
"Things have tightened up, and the debate has something to do with it," says Green. "But this is the way things tend to work in Ohio. ... We have these swings, but we also have periods where it's very even," he says, adding that sometimes it's simply due to who has most recently been campaigning in the state.
"It really reminds me of 2004," Green says, when an "incumbent with problems" — then it was President George W. Bush — won the state with 50 percent of the vote on his way to re-election.
No Republican, we are obligated to note, has won the White House without winning Ohio. Obama won here in 2008, with 51.5 percent of the vote.
Not A Sure Thing
The state's 7.2 percent unemployment rate, lower than the 7.8 percent national average, and Obama's support of government loans that shored up the auto industry — vital to Ohio's economy — are part of the reason he's hanging on to a lead.
That's not to suggest that the 2012 Ohio election story has been told.
Just look at a post-debate Bloomberg News Swing State poll released this week that showed Romney's support among married women in Ohio on the rise.
Before the Oct. 3 presidential debate, several polls suggested that Obama was not only continuing the Democrats' historic dominance with unmarried women, but also was cutting into Republicans' usual edge with married women. Women are the key to Obama's fortunes; polls show Romney running stronger with white men, with the president on course to win fewer votes from that demographic than he did four years ago.
"I think the debate clearly mattered," says J. Ann Selzer, the pollster who directed the telephone poll. Selzer's survey found that married Ohio women, a demographic dominated by white women, preferred Obama's stances on reproductive rights and also said he better understood their problems.
But the married women, particularly those not working a full-time job, were moving toward Romney because they said they viewed him as more capable of grappling with the nation's economic problems. Even though by a 2-to-1 margin they said they supported the auto industry loans, and live in a state that is doing better than most economically.
"What I would speculate," Selzer says, "is their support for Obama was soft, and that they're likely in a household with a husband who voted for (GOP presidential nominee) John McCain in 2008, and is for Romney now."
During the debate with Obama, Romney succeeded in laying out "some very simple promises: I won't raise the deficit; I won't raise taxes on the middle class," Selzer says.
While partisans can argue the consistency or veracity of the promises — and they are — the performance resonated. "It was forceful and simple," Selzer says, "and President Obama didn't counter with anything like it."
The timing of the debate has benefited Romney, too, she says, with two weeks between the first and the second presidential debate, scheduled for Tuesday.
Frenzied Weeks Ahead
The campaigns have upped their advertising buys in a presidential election that has already seen more than $110 million dumped into the state.
With 26 days before Election Day, Ward Weber II, 50, one of those Columbus-area Republicans who is liberal on social issues — "I'm a staunch Republican," he says, "but not an unreasonable one" — still sees the race breaking for Obama.
Unless, he says, Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich can make a strong case in these final weeks that the state's economic stability had as much or more to do with the governor's policies than with those of the president.
"Romney has to get Kasich out there, on television, and other places, he has to hope that Paul Ryan has a good debate, and that he [Romney] can follow up with another debate winner next week," says Weber, a married father of two who works as a manufacturer's representative for a heating and cooling company. Romney was the candidate Weber, who voted for McCain in 2008 but for President Clinton in 1996, preferred before the debate for economic reasons.
Both candidates still have work to do in Ohio. Obama with married women, and Romney with a base that includes Republican men who may have given their vote to the other side last time round
"Each side is trying very hard to mobilize their base," says Green, of the University of Akron. "This now is not about persuasion, but about stimulating people to vote."