By the time Mitt Romney got to Toledo for his rally Wednesday evening, he was far on the wrong side of a campaign narrative that has been gathering force against him and in a state that could hold the key to the outcome of the presidential race.
A few hours earlier and 30 minutes south of Toledo, President Obama wrapped up a rally at Bowling Green State University, the first of two campus events in Ohio. On a gray and sometimes stormy day, the candidates almost crossed paths, as Romney made his way north by bus from Columbus and Air Force One carried the president east to Kent.
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Nothing spoke more about Ohio’s significance than the overlapping visits — Romney’s 16th to the state this year and Obama’s 13th — at a potentially pivotal moment in the contest. Their appearances highlighted the changing trajectories of the race. Obama looked Wednesday to seize on his advantages and drive them forward. Romney hoped to provide a shot of energy that could reverse the momentum that has built suddenly in the president’s favor.
Three polls released within four days have shown Romney falling behind in Ohio: five percentage points in a survey Sunday by a consortium of Ohio newspapers, eight points in a Washington Post poll Tuesday, and a whopping 10 points in a Quinnipiac University survey for the New York Times and CBS News released early Wednesday. That’s a far distance from the dead heat reported in a Columbus Dispatch poll at the beginning of the month.
Ohio wasn’t supposed to be this way. Margins brushing up against double digits seem to defy the political gravity of a state that is as hard-fought as any in the nation for the fourth election in a row. Former president George W. Bush won it by two points in 2004 and fewer than four in 2000. Four years ago, Obama won the state by five points under ideal circumstances — hardly the conditions in this contest.
Who knows whether the president’s margins can hold. Recent history suggests no, but right now the numbers are weights on Romney’s shoulders. His advisers don’t think the worst of them, but they know they are behind.
The focus on the numbers steals oxygen from the message Romney is trying to deliver and worries supporters looking for a spark, a break or a bit of news that would shift the focus back to the fundamentals of a race that has made Obama vulnerable all year.
Although they agree on little in terms of policy, Obama and Romney agree on the foundational question of the campaign. Both say it is a choice, a big one, between two dramatically contrasting philosophies. That is a concession by the GOP nominee. Romney has come around to accepting this reality, knowing that his hopes of making this election purely a referendum on the president are gone and that he must win the argument over the future, not just attack Obama’s record.
On Wednesday, the opposing camps were out in force. Lines of Obama supporters formed in the morning outside the Stroh Center on the Bowling Green State campus. Inside, a wildly enthusiastic audience of mostly students did the wave while waiting and then let out a series of ear-piercing yells when Obama appeared on the stage and throughout his speech.