By Emily Schultheis and Alexander Burns
CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — If all else fails, Barack Obama will still have Ohio.
At least, that's the thinking among Democrats concerned about Mitt Romney's rise in the polls.
The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling gave Obama a 5-point lead there over the weekend, while last week a CNN survey pegged his advantage at 4 points and a Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist College poll had Obama ahead by a 5-point margin.
Romney's internal polling has the Ohio race tighter than that, campaign officials said, and Republicans in and outside Ohio believe their nominee is within striking distance of or actually in a dead heat with the president. Democrats inflicted lasting damage over the summer with a TV offensive searing Romney as a plutocrat out of touch with the working class and a conservative hostile to women's rights. At least some of those wounds appear to have healed now that voters have heard from Romney in an unfiltered debate setting.
But the Buckeye State has proved frustratingly tough to crack for Romney, and Obama's lingering strength there remains the president's greatest asset on the electoral map. Should Obama take Ohio, Romney would be forced to win nearly every other battleground state to amass the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win.
Nonetheless, an upbeat senior Romney aide told POLITICO that private data show the state has "tipped" and is moving toward Romney — but also emphasized that there are paths to victory that don't involve winning the state and its 18 electoral votes.
"We can get there without Ohio. We don't want to. We certainly don't want to," the Romney adviser said. "The cold, hard, truth is [Obama has] to win Ohio. They know that if that one slips away from them, their whole house of cards comes tumbling down."
It "took a debate to unravel" Ohioans' negative perceptions of Romney, the strategist argued, but as for Obama: "Those undecided voters aren't going to break his way. They've decided on Barack Obama."
As Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a top Romney backer and debate-prep sparring partner, put it in a Sunday appearance on ABC's "This Week:" "You can probably win the presidency without Ohio, but I wouldn't want to take the risk and no Republican has."
Romney's campaign schedule has reflected the high stakes of the Ohio campaign: He and Paul Ryan held nine events there over the past week, hitting every major geographic region in the state. Romney's schedule has taken him to solidly Republican areas — counties like Shelby and Warren in western Ohio that voted solidly for John McCain four years ago — and to Obama-friendly Summit County between Cleveland and Akron.
At an event last Tuesday in Cuyahoga Falls, Romney touted the Denver debate as a "great experience," telling the crowd of himself and the president: "One thing that we did agree on in that debate is that we represent two very different paths forward for America."
On TV, meanwhile, Romney continues to pound the Ohio airwaves with ads calling Obama an enemy of the coal industry and a feeble economic leader across the board. The hope, Republicans said, is to continue consolidating Republican support in areas like the Cincinnati-area Hamilton County, run up the score in southeast Ohio's coal country and then — in perhaps the greatest challenge — outhustle an Obama turnout operation that's likely to deliver big margins in cities such as Columbus and Cleveland.
Several top Ohio Republicans suggested that Romney's strategy relies on huge turnout from conservative areas and George W. Bush-level margins among traditionally Republican-friendly constituencies. Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett, a longtime party leader in the state, said Romney's recent attentiveness to heavily Republican-rich counties has been a prudent way of turning out the early vote.
"Mitt Romney has been in all the major urban areas in the campaign, so he and Paul Ryan right now are starting to get into the base," he said. "We have early voting in Ohio, so we're encouraging people to get out — we're going into our strengths now."
Bennett acknowledged, too, that victory for Romney depends in part on a strong break for the challenger among undecided voters in large swing counties like Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and Franklin County (Columbus). Other Republicans in the state said that while Romney has shaved off some of Obama's lead, there's still a reasonable distance to make up.
"They're looking for a reason to vote for the challenger," Bennett said of Ohioans. "If you're in a statistical dead heat with the incumbent and you have a small undecided vote, those undecided will break almost 80-20 for the challenger."
Without making quite so bold a forecast, Romney state director Scott Jennings emphasized the importance of vacuuming up votes from areas that voted Republican in 2000 and 2004 but wobbled away from John McCain four years ago: "Bush did a good job of running up the score in a lot of Republican counties between Dayton and Lima. McCain won those counties in 2008 but by a smaller margin."
In the view of Democrats, all Romney's purported momentum adds up to less than the sum of its parts. If the race has closed, they say, it's because it was always bound to tighten toward the end. Romney's debate performance may have put a spring in his step for a period of days or weeks, but it hasn't done away with the fundamental disconnect between the GOP candidate and Ohio voters.
Former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, a national co-chairman of Obama's campaign, said the president had built a durable advantage thanks to support from blue-collar constituencies turned off by Romney's economic philosophy — in particular, his opposition to the auto bailout — as well as women and other voters concerned about social issues.
Strickland pointed in particular to the video that surfaced last month showing Romney disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes — politically damaging footage that Obama failed to mention in the Denver debate and is likely to come up in the second debate tonight at Long Island's Hofstra University.
"That video was like the straw that broke the camel's back. It was the thing that really solidified in [voters'] minds that this guy is a rich guy and if we're not a part of his economic and social class, we don't count," Strickland said.
When it comes to Ohio women, Strickland argued, "they're interested in jobs, but they're also interested in the freedom to choose [in terms of abortion rights]. They're interested in being able to get equal pay for equal work. Those are very important issues, and they need to be discussed."
In a focus group conducted in Columbus for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, Democratic pollster Peter Hart found that Ohio voters may be more open to Romney than they were a few weeks ago, but significant doubts remain.
"Romney got the attention of people who largely had tuned him out. He was able to shake off the ‘frozen smile' that previously characterized him to so many. These Columbus swing voters are not ready to switch on the basis of one debate, but they are open to being persuaded if Romney continues to outshine Obama," Hart wrote in his analysis. "On the economic front, Romney may have the credentials, but he has yet to translate them into something these voters can grasp firmly. They know he has held the position and done the deals, but there are no specifics."
Perhaps most troubling for Romney backers, Hart continues: "Despite his business acumen, Gov. Romney has made too many gaffes on the international front (the Olympics) or shown too much malleability on key issues such as abortion for these voters to take his credentials and translate them into a successful presidency."
None of that is to say that Democrats are coasting in the state, though several strategists said they believe Obama's margin remains more or less what it was before the debate.
First lady Michelle Obama visited Ohio on Monday, stumping for her husband's campaign in the Columbus suburb of Delaware. The president is due in Athens on Wednesday immediately after his second debate with Romney. On Thursday, two aging celebrities, former President Bill Clinton and rock legend Bruce Springsteen, are scheduled to appear together in Parma.
And yesterday, the Obama camp released a TV ad featuring John Glenn, the 91-year-old former Ohio senator and astronaut, making an appeal grounded in the same character- and economic populism-based message that has defined Obama's Ohio campaign.
"Growing up in Ohio, you learn to size up a person by their character, and that's why I'm supporting President Obama. He stood firm against the doubters and helped rescue the auto industry. He's taken on big corporations and foreign powers when they threatened our jobs, our freedom, our way of life," Glenn says in the ad.
Glenn closes with one more nod to the character argument: "And you know [Obama] means what he says. That's the Ohio way."