CINCINNATI, Ohio—Mitt Romney seems to have gained an extra kick in his step since his first debate with President Barack Obama earlier this month, and the new burst of energy was ever apparent during his most recent swing through the crucial state of Ohio.
"There is a growing crescendo of enthusiasm," Romney declared at a rally in Lancaster on Friday night, where he joined his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, for the first time since the vice presidential debate. "There is more energy and passion, people are getting behind this campaign."
Romney had been running a campaign that hardly gained more than 25 percent of Republican national support during the primaries. It withstood a summer of pundits declaring Obama the easy victor and a brutal September filled with stories about how he once spoke derogatorily about 47 percent of the country's population. Now, this postdebate leg makes all of that seem like ancient history. Surveys taken both nationally and in Ohio show Romney quickly catching up with Obama, who has enjoyed a slight edge on the Republican nominee for most of the election cycle.
Visibly, there has also been a shift in the size of the crowds coming out to see Romney. Large numbers can be partly attributed to the proximity to Election Day, but it's difficult to ignore the sheer size of some of Romney's latest events in Ohio. The candidate attracted more than 10,000 people who filled the streets of downtown Lebanon on Saturday. On Friday, 8,500 supporters joined him in Lancaster and 9,500 others rallied for him in Sidney a week before.
Regardless of why Romney's rallies are looking more like Obama's—which easily bring in Ohio crowds in the tens of thousands—Romney seems visibly energized. "His campaign is about smaller and smaller things," Romney said of Obama in Portsmouth, Ohio, on Saturday, "and our campaign is about bigger and bigger crowds fighting for a bright future."
There's a reason why both Romney and Obama have spent so much time—and invested so much money—in this state of about 11 million. History has proven Ohio to be more than just another battleground state. It serves as a bellwether for the nation, and its voters, who almost always send their Electoral College votes to the winner, seem gifted with some kind of political psychic power. The last time Ohio picked a loser was 52 years ago, a time when "The Flintstones" had just premiered on television for the first time and the Beatles were still just a few teenagers getting their act together in Liverpool.
Romney's message to Ohio
The key difference between Romney's campaign in 2012 and John McCain's failed presidential run four years ago, Republicans here say, is that now they're the ones playing offense. Romney's basic Ohio stump speech usually involves a blend of issues that includes energy policy—with a special emphasis on coal—a promise to label China "a currency manipulator" on his first day in office and an attack on Obama for reducing military spending.
Vice President Joe Biden even offered some free ammunition to Romney's attack line during last week's debate with Ryan when he advocated for halting production of Ohio-built M1 tanks. Team Romney leapt at the opportunity to talk about it. Biden's line offered Romney's campaign an easy opening in which to land a double punch by suggesting that the president is a weak commander in chief, one who doesn't care about goods produced in one of the most important battleground states in the country.
"When you say it's OK to impose these devastating cuts on our military," Ryan said in Lancaster, "that we don't need any more Lima-built M1 tanks, what we are doing is we're projecting weakness, and when we project weakness abroad our enemies become more brazen."
In Ohio, Romney also relishes in opportunities to reminisce about his first debate with Obama, which is a sure crowd-pleaser. "I enjoyed it a great deal," a playful Romney said in Portsmouth, adding that he looks forward to facing Obama in the next round.
"Being on offense is a heck of a lot more fun than being on defense," Romney political director Rich Beeson told Yahoo News in an interview in Columbus this summer. "In 2008 we were on defense, and now we're fully on offense."
At stops throughout the state last week and over the weekend, Romney also made a special effort to weave personal stories into his remarks. One he likes to tell is about a group of Boy Scouts who sent their troop's American flag on to the Challenger space shuttle that exploded in 1986. The flag was later recovered among the wreckage in perfect condition. Romney describes how he once touched the flag and says "it felt like electricity" running through his arm, reminding him of the greatness of America. He tells another about the wife of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan who faced protesters at her slain husband's military funeral. The stories are powerful and audiences across Ohio, in the thousands, stand silently as he tells them.
While Romney's prospects here may be looking better than they did over the summer, the cold truth for Republicans is that the electoral map still favors the president. Were Romney to lose here, it sharply reduces his chances to win the national election, and his team knows it.
"You can probably win the presidency without Ohio, but I wouldn't want to take the risk," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Romney's most ubiquitous surrogate in the Buckeye State, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "And no Republican has."
Election forecasters say he would need to carry nearly almost every other battleground state and achieve a few upsets to keep Obama from reaching 270 electoral votes if Ohio goes for the president. Based on the resources he's pouring into the state, it's clear that Romney is doing everything he can to ensure he won't need to implement a Plan B that doesn't include the Buckeyes.
"We need to win Ohio," Romney said on Friday. "If we win Ohio, we take back America."