TOLEDO — 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.
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.
By mid-afternoon in downtown Toledo, there were lines outside the smaller venue where Romney spoke. His supporters passed vendors hawking T-shirts calling the GOP candidate and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the nation’s “comeback team,” a label whose meaning is as much political as it is economic.
Inside the SeaGate Convention Center, a warm-up band kept the crowd entertained with songs by Michael Jackson, Abba and Journey. Chants of “USA! USA!” and “O-H-I-O” filled the room as the time neared for the candidate to appear. There was no sign of an enthusiasm gap in the face of deficits in the polls.
In what may have been a tuneup for their upcoming debates, the first of which will be held on Wednesday in Denver, Obama and Romney used their stump speeches to draw sharp contrasts with each other.
Obama pilloried Romney as a proponent of top-down economics who has said 47 percent of Americans view themselves as “victims” and has written them off. He said Romney’s tough talk on China belies a record to the contrary. “Newfound outrage,” he called it. Romney, he said, would “gut” education to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. He said the Republican thinks it’s fair that he paid a lower tax rate on $20 million in income than an auto worker making $50,000 a year.
Romney cast the president as a creature of big government, a proponent of policies that kill jobs and cost Americans their freedom. On China, he said, Obama has had multiple opportunities to label the Chinese as currency manipulators. “He hasn’t. I will,” he said. Obama, he said, is out of ideas. Another term, he said, would bring the status quo: a high unemployment rate, stagnant wages and more debt. “We can’t afford another four years like the last four years,” he said.
Obama reminds Ohioans that the economy has improved, if marginally. He particularly touts the auto industry bailout that he championed and that has given the state a boost, particularly along the northern tier where the industry is concentrated. Romney and his surrogates remind Ohioans that the economy is far from healthy, that an unemployment rate of just over 7 percent may be below the national average but hardly good, and that the country would face more stagnation if Obama is reelected.
There was something else about Romney in Ohio these past two days, a concerted effort to show empathy for those struggling silently or visibly, as if his comment about the 47 percent has forced him to try to show compassion.
Down the stretch, voters in Ohio will hear these arguments repeated — on the trail and in the debates, on their TV screens, in their mailboxes and on their phones. “Saturation” doesn’t begin to describe the bombardment that began here last summer and will continue until Nov. 6.
On the political clock, late September in Ohio feels like late October, with a sense of urgency on both sides that is almost palpable. Early voting will begin in the state next week. Romney needs to move quickly to try to make up lost ground. His energy in Toledo was high, and the audience responded with enthusiasm. But with each day, the pool of persuadable voters grows smaller.
Ohio is the campaign in microcosm, and on this Wednesday everything was on display, all the passions, the arguments, the issues, the strengths and the weaknesses of the candidates, the loyalty of their followers and the choices ahead. It will be over — but not for six weeks.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.