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Obama showering Ohio with attention and money

By and Alice Crites,

After President Obama pledged in March to create up to 15 manufacturing centers nationwide, the first federal grant went to a place at the heart of his affections: Ohio.

When the Obama administration awarded tax credits to promote clean energy, the $125 million taken home by Ohio companies was nearly four times the average that went to other states.

And when a Cleveland dairy owner wanted to make more ricotta cheese, he won what was then the largest loan in the history of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“One of the tastiest investments the government has ever made,’’ the president joked as he mentioned the dairy and other businesses his administration has helped in the state.

It goes without saying that, every four years, presidential candidates shower battleground states with attention. This time around, it’s Obama in Ohio, doling out the perks of office — all the time.

He will return to the state Wednesday to barnstorm in Bowling Green and Kent, making what will be his 29th visit since taking office. Excluding D.C.’s neighboring states, Virginia and Maryland, that’s more than any state except New York, where he often flies to raise money, and far more than other swing states, including Florida (22 visits), Colorado (14) and Wisconsin (9), according to White House records.

Either Obama or Vice President Biden has popped up in the Buckeye State every three weeks on average since they took office.

The president has eaten Cincinnati chili, led the cheers for Ohio State basketball and planted himself in the back yard of a Columbus family to highlight, next to their tomato garden, what his policies did for them. His trips, along with repeated outings by Biden (18 visits) and other Cabinet members, often have come with good news about funding and other government largess.

Obama even jokes about his courtship of the state, saying in a 2010 visit that he had been there so many times that the governor “might start charging me for it.’’

And he is clear about the stakes. “If we win Toledo, we will win Ohio,” Obama said in a Toledo speech this month. “And if we win Ohio, we’ll win this election.’’ The line is a refrain he is known to have used in various battleground states.

His efforts appear to be paying off in what is perhaps the ultimate battleground, a politically divided state with 18 electoral votes that has gone with the winning candidate in nearly every presidential election for 70 years.

A Washington Post poll released Tuesday shows Obama with an eight-point lead over Mitt Romney in Ohio among likely voters.

The gap also could be tied to the state’s improving economy and the relative popularity in Ohio of the auto-industry bailout that the administration oversaw. Obama and other officials have repeatedly touted the bailout on visits to Ohio, emphasizing Romney’s opposition to it and the fact that the domestic car industry employs about 150,000 workers in the state.

Administration officials said that they have not favored Ohio and that federal money flows to every state, including those with little political benefit, according to merit-based reviews. “These decisions are made on the merits by professionals with the relevant policy expertise,’’ said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. “These projects often have bipartisan support and are part of programs that have created jobs all across the country.’’

Schultz added that “a state’s political significance doesn’t secure it federal resources — but it shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor either.”

Another administration official involved in funding decisions agreed that they are policy-based but acknowledged an awareness of the political benefit.

“When good policies are good politics, that’s great,’’ said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized spokesman.

In paying “disproportionate attention to Ohio,’’ Obama “is following in the footsteps of his recent predecessors,’’ said Brendan Doherty, an expert on presidential travel at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Since the Ronald Reagan administration, presidents have been ­increasingly targeting battleground states. The trend escalated under George W. Bush, who visited Ohio 35 times in his first term, Doherty said.

Obama has framed many key moments in his term in Ohio.

As the administration was distributing stimulus money, the president noted in a 2010 town hall meeting near Cleveland that Ohio “received more funds than just about anybody in order to build on that clean-energy economy.’’

In fact, the state’s portion of the $2.3 billion in clean-energy manufacturing tax credits was tens of millions of dollars more than the slices that went to other swing states.

In high-speed rail, another administration priority, Ohio also fared well. The White House in 2010 awarded the state $400 million to resume passenger train service between Cincinnati, Cleveland and other cities, a service that had ended four decades earlier.

The announcement highlighted nine “major corridor” projects, serving up to 11 states. The only two that benefited a single state were in Ohio and Florida. Both states rejected the money after electing Republican governors.

Administration officials said the tax credit and rail funding were awarded on merit.

In one case, the administration’s fondness for Ohio appeared to lead to a sudden about-face to save jobs. When Obama visited Mansfield in August, media outlets and Republicans in the state pointed out that he would be flying into an Air National Guard base where his budget had proposed cutting a fleet of aircraft and about 800 positions.

By day’s end — after base officials vowed to position the threatened planes so Obama could see them from Air Force One — the White House said it would “find a mission” for the guard unit. A White House spokesman said Monday that Obama remains “absolutely” committed to finding that mission.

Brian Reis, who runs a company making potato chips and other snack food about 100 miles from Cleveland, says he is grateful for the attention.

Reis, a Republican, has received three Small Business Administration loans totaling $3.9 million since Obama took office, along with a $2 million loan during the Bush administration. In August, the agency’s head, Karen Mills, toured his facility for the launch of a kit that allows people to flavor their own gourmet potato chips. Last year, Biden singled him out in a speech near Cleveland.

“Does it benefit them politically? Sure it does,’’ Reis said in an interview. “But this is the vice president of the United States saying good things about our company. How can anybody in their right mind not be very appreciative?’’

During his first visit to Ohio as president in March 2009, Obama brought more than $1 billion in stimulus money. With Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., he showed up for Columbus police graduation ceremonies and highlighted funding for everything from law enforcement to roads.

On other trips, Obama and his team have provided a backdrop for administration priorities. The president repeatedly pushed his health-care proposals in Ohio, and when he was promoting his American Jobs Act last fall he went to Ohio first, after sending the bill to Congress. When he named the first head of his controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he chose a former Ohio attorney general.

The day after the Iowa caucuses early this year, Obama went to Ohio, and in May he officially began his reelection campaign with a rally at Ohio State University.

When it came to Obama’s proposal to invest $1 billion to create a network of “manufacturing ­innovation institutes,’’ Congress declined to approve the funding. The administration forged ahead, funding a pilot program that will focus on digital-based manufacturing. The winner of the $30 million pilot grant was a consortium that said it would base the operation in Youngstown, Ohio.

An administration official said that the consortium’s was “clearly the strongest” of 12 proposals and that the project will also benefit Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Ohio has been a big winner in Race to the Top, the administration’s signature education reform initiative, taking home the fourth-highest total in federal grants of any state. Education Department officials said that they kept the process free of politics by handing the decisions over to independent educators and that funding amounts were based on the number of students served.

Then there was Joe Miceli, head of Miceli Dairy Products in Cleveland, which makes ricotta and other cheeses. He was the first to benefit from a new law that raised the limit for SBA loans for manufacturing from $2.5 million to $5.5 million, winning $5.49 million in December 2010.

Two months later, Obama cited the loan at an event with small-business leaders in Cleveland.

This year, the agency has approved 2,726 loans for Ohio businesses. That is nearly 500 more than Florida, a state with 7.3 million more people.

Miceli declined to be interviewed for this article, but Gil Goldberg, head of the SBA’s Cleveland district office, said he was impressed with the dairy owner’s family legacy and commitment to expanding in the city.

Goldberg said that his agency brought the loan to the White House’s attention but that “politics did not enter into it at all.’’

Peyton M. Craighill, Emma Brown and David S. Fallis contributed to this report.

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