BOCA RATON, Fla. — Monday night’s debate may have centered on foreign policy, but the topic of discussion in the spin room — and the center of the campaign for the next 14 days — was halfway across the country in the state that both campaigns have concluded will likely decide the election.
Ohio, which saved George W. Bush's presidency in the last hard-fought re-election campaign, has become pivotal again in this election, offering President Obama a bulwark against his Republican foe and Mitt Romney his only shot at the White House.
And so both candidates Monday stressed that they would fight China tooth and nail for the manufacturing jobs that have fled the Midwest. President Obama, in a foreign policy debate, welcomed a detour into a debate over the car industry. And in the debate's final moments, Obama went out of his way to cite the importance of Ohio.
Despite a recent spate of national polling showing the Republican leading nationally, Ohio has remained blue, with a modest, but sustained, move in Romney’s direction. And in the crucial electoral college, both parties agree Romney’s path to the White House is nearly nonexistent without Ohio, while Obama’s options would be severely complicated.
“Romney virtually has no path to 270 without Ohio, and we’ve always had additional paths,” maintained DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse. “He hasn’t broken the code in Ohio — he’s been behind the whole time.”
“I think Ohio is a make or break state for Romney, and it is a critical state for us,” he added.
"You can probably win the presidency without Ohio but I wouldn't want to take the risk, and no Republican has," said Ohio Senator Rob Portman.
Democrats are quick to cite their impressive ground game in the state, and their lead in the early vote, as reasons they believe they are winning in Ohio. Republicans admit they are playing catch-up, but say the momentum is on their side. The campaigns have traded dueling memos on the early vote in Ohio in recent days, with each side claiming the numbers are on their side.
“If you look at the early vote, that’s the best intensity measure,” Messina said when asked about a persistent lack of enthusiasm seen among Democratic voters in polls across the country. “And we are 2-1 leading in Ohio.”
“They always win the early vote,” said RNC communications director Sean Spicer. “What’s happening is they are winning the early vote by a smaller margin than 2008 and we’re performing better.”
Romney and the RNC are poised to make their six millionth voter contact this election cycle in Ohio this coming week as well as their 2 millionth door knock.
“There is just no comparison to the ground game four years ago,” Ohio state director Scott Jennings told BuzzFeed.
Romney aides also emphasize that they are only now out-spending Obama in the state in combined Romney, RNC, and outside group spending. Just Monday the RNC’s independent expenditure arm increased its buy in Ohio by $3 million.
The Obama campaign is wary of showing any sign of weakness in the Buckeye state. Campaign manager Jim Messina declared on Tuesday that the state is not, as Republicans claim, a “dead heat.”
“We have a lead in Ohio. We’re going to win Ohio,” he told reporters after the debate.
The Obama campaign has dwelled, in particular, on the strength of a field organizing program that they began building for the 2007 Democratic Primary and never really switched off.
“The next 15 days are about two things, and two things only: persuading the undecided and turning out your vote,” Messina said. “And we have the ground operation in Ohio and they don’t.”
“We think we have a good lead in Ohio,” echoed senior adviser David Plouffe minutes later. “If [Romney] loses Ohio, if he loses Florida, obviously his task becomes monumental again. We still think from an Electoral College standpoint that we have a lot more ways to put our Rubik’s cube together.”
Romney aides confirmed that he will spend Thursday and Friday in the state, while Paul Ryan will be there Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Jennings said Romney and Ryan will be in Ohio “a bushel- or a bucket-load,” from now to election day, adding “but I’m not sure which.”
Jennings dismissed a Quinnipiac University poll conducted for The New York Times and CBS News and released Monday showing Obama up by five points in the state, arguing that it had a Democrat-heavy sample, pointing to an array of other polls showing a tighter race.
“But even the bad polls show that we’re overwhelmingly winning independents,” Jennings said. “We’re steadily tracking in the right direction, and momentum means a lot in politics. We’re on a path to overtake these guys and win this state.”
Republicans maintain that Obama is underperforming in in the counties encompassing Columbus and Toledo — both strongholds — while they are surpassing 2008 totals particularly around Cincinnati. Plouffe said the Obama campaign has its hopes hanging on Toledo, Canton, and Akron — cities benefiting from the auto-bailout.
With both campaigns flush with cash, neither side will have to alter TV buying habits in the final two weeks in Ohio, where they’ve each bought nearly as much airtime as is available.
“We’re just not forced to make decisions about resources,” Woodhouse said in an sentiment echoed by his counterparts across the aisle. “At some point you have to make a decision about where to send principles in the final days — sending them to Ohio or elsewhere. One thing we don’t have to decide is where to spend money.”