COLUMBUS, Ohio - Mitt Romney is making a renewed push in the battleground state of Ohio, trying to use his post-debate momentum to make up ground in the Midwestern state that has been crucial to Republican presidential candidates and could determine whether President Barack Obama holds on to the White House.
Romney planned events in communities north of Columbus and Dayton on Wednesday, intensifying his efforts in the state after a strong performance in last week's debate that has helped him close a deficit in national polls and re-energized his campaign.
Ohio remained a focus for both campaigns, as Obama and Romney pushed for support on Tuesday, the last day of voter registration before Election Day on Nov. 6. Obama returned to the White House following a fundraising trip through California and a stop Tuesday at Ohio State University in Columbus.
A victory in Ohio is critical for both candidates but especially for Romney: No Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio.
Obama has held a polling edge in the state for weeks but there were signs that his advantage was narrowing. A new CNN poll showed Obama leading Romney 51 per cent to 47 per cent among likely Ohio voters. And Republican strategists familiar with Romney's internal polling contended the race was even closer — within a single percentage point — as the candidate enjoyed a post-debate surge of support.
The U.S. president is chosen in state-by-state elections, not a national popular vote. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its representatives in the House and Senate. There are 538 votes in the Electoral College, and a candidate must have at least 270 to win. Except for Maine and Nebraska, states award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state.
The system makes states like Ohio — with its 18 electoral votes and a population that is neither reliably Republican nor Democratic — fierce battlegrounds. Ohio decided the 2004 race in favour of Republican George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry.
Obama was greeted in Columbus — for the rally at Ohio State University — by enormous letters that spelled out "vote early," a plea to the young voters who buoyed the president's bid in 2008. He urged his supporters not to wait or delay their vote, directing them to buses that were waiting to give them rides to early voting locations.
"Everything we fought for in 2008 is on the line in 2012," he said.
Obama was staying off the campaign trail on Wednesday and then heading to Florida on Thursday for events in the largest battleground state.
Romney focused Tuesday on the Democratic bastion of Cuyahoga County to the north.
"This economy is not creating the jobs it should. We've got to fix it," Romney said in Cuyahoga Falls, where he campaigned with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "We're going to do it here in Ohio."
Republicans credit Romney's strong debate appearance last week as the reason for an uptick in national polling. And Romney advisers maintain they're seeing evidence of that in the swing states most likely to decide the election, Ohio among them.
"I promise you he's back in the game in Ohio," said Charlie Black, an informal Romney campaign adviser.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki dismissed the impact of polls showing a tighter race, saying Democrats always expected the race here and elsewhere to tighten ahead of Election Day.
"We have blinders on," she told reporters travelling on the presidential plane Air Force One. "We're implementing our own game plan."
Ohio is such a key state for Romney that one top adviser has dubbed it "the ball game" as the Republican looks to string together enough state victories to amass the 270 Electoral College votes needed to take the White House. If Romney were to lose Ohio, he would have to carry every other battleground state except tiny New Hampshire.
Romney has far fewer state-by-state paths to the White House than Obama, who still has several routes to victory should he lose Ohio.
Given the stakes and with just 28 days left in the campaign, Romney's schedule highlights his increased focus on the state: He's spending four of the next five days in Ohio, ahead of the second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York on Tuesday. Running mate Paul Ryan squares off against Vice-President Joe Biden on Thursday for the sole debate featuring the No. 2's on the tickets.
Romney was campaigning in Ohio as his comments on abortion to an Iowa newspaper brought attention to social issues. Romney told The Des Moines Register in an interview Tuesday that he would not pursue any abortion-related legislation if elected president. His campaign tried to walk back the remarks, saying he would support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life, without elaborating.
Obama's campaign jumped on the apparent shift, saying in a statement that "within just a couple hours of the story with Romney's abortion comments posting, his spokesperson clarified that he would in fact support legislation to restrict a woman's right to choose."
Illustrating the competitive nature of Ohio, no presidential battleground has been more saturated with television advertising.
Ads in Ohio have focused on the energy industry — some rural, southern areas of the state rely heavily on coal — and on China, where foreign companies are seen as competing with Ohio's manufacturing base and jeopardizing jobs.
Obama has sought to paint Romney as a plutocrat who outsourced jobs during his tenure leading the private equity firm Bain Capital.
Romney, in turn, has sharply criticized Obama's support for stricter regulations on coal and natural gas. It's seen as a way in with white working-class voters, on which his candidacy depends.
White working-class voters prefer Romney to Obama, but less so than they did Republican George W. Bush, who carried Ohio in 2004. These voters are considered still persuadable, although Romney may have hurt himself with his comment that the 47 per cent of Americans who pay no federal income tax believe they are victims entitled to government help.
Romney's opposition to the auto bailout also dogs him in a state that's heavily reliant on the industry. Obama's decision to offer government support to automakers meant protection for thousands of jobs at parts and supply companies in Ohio, where the unemployment rate is now lower than the national average.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Ben Feller, Kasie Hunt, Steve Peoples, Thomas Beaumont, Philip Elliott, and Julie Pace contributed to this report.