COLUMBUS, Ohio - They come. They wheedle. They cajole. They beg. They promise. And then in a few days, they return.
President Barack Obama has been to Ohio 29 times. Mitt Romney just concluded a bus tour of Ohio. A bus tour! (Romney seems more comfortable in fast jets, boats and cars.) Once again, as in 2004, Ohio may decide who is president next January. Currently, Obama has the edge, a 10-point lead in the Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times Swing State Poll released Wednesday. The Romney camp insists polls are biased.
That may be technically correct, if rather hopeful. Still, Romney is not thinking of giving up.
Why, you might ask, Ohio? Ohio has only 18 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the White House. California has 55. Texas has 38. And the candidates hardly ever go there except to raise money from rich people. But California will vote for Obama. And Texas will vote for Romney. Ohio is the cherished prize, possibly even more than Florida (with 29 votes), Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Colorado and a few other swing states.
Part of it is myth and math. No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. It is possible for Romney to win without Ohio but that's highly unlikely in a country as evenly politically divided as the United States.
On his last visit to Ohio, Obama told a Toledo crowd: "If we win Toledo, we win Ohio. If we win Ohio, we win the election." Ohio is far more diverse and representative of the nation than New Hampshire and Iowa, which hold the first primary and caucus, helping decide the nominees.
And in a country still struggling to get out of recession, Ohio is a bright note. Although its Republican governor, John Kasich, claims credit, economists say the climate was improving before he took office partly because of the shale oil boom. They also credit Obama's auto bailout. Eighty-two out of Ohio's 88 counties have some form of connection to the auto industry. One out of eight Ohio workers is employed by a plant connected to the auto industry. Also, the federal government poured billions of dollars into Ohio for unemployment benefits, Medicaid payments and road programs.
Ohio unions were reinvigorated after the GOP crackdown on public employee unions in Wisconsin and Ohio. Many women in Ohio were taken aback by the strong opinions of Romney running mate Paul Ryan on such issues as abortion, Social Security and Medicare. And Romney's now-notorious off-the-cuff comments to a group of $50,000-a-plate donors that 47 percent of Americans (including veterans and retirees) are moochers does not sit well here.
Still, Obama has an uphill battle. The unemployment rate in Ohio is 7.2 percent and while that is more than a full point below the national average, it is too high. Two out of five Republican voters in Ohio wrongly believe Obama was not born in the United States, ignoring his Hawaiian birth certificate.
Because early voting is permitted in Ohio in October, the candidates have intensely focused on the state, each promising a stronger economy without being specific. But although Obama has not been specific about his economic plans in a second term, the Obama campaign's early emphasis on Romney's outsourcing of jobs to China and his wealth have hurt Romney. "All Romney wants to do is to give more tax breaks to his rich friends and stop regulating big business," said a woman at a Romney rally who said she is still undecided but leaning toward Obama.
Romney is at heart an optimist but is running a gloomy campaign, decrying Obama's presidency in every way. And in Ohio, his constant refrain of pessimism is not registering as well as he'd like. While Ohioans are still edgy, there is a feeling that the economy is slowly, very slowly, improving. Consumer confidence is at a seven-month high; houses are beginning to sell; spending is increasing.
But Obama would be foolish to take Ohio for granted. Never underestimate October for surprises.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.