DAYTON, Ohio - Ohio ranks fifth in its population of military veterans, so when George W. Bush came here the other day, he brought along a pair of impressive persuaders - retired Gens. Colin Powell, a chief planner of the lightning victory in the Persian Gulf war, and Norman Schwarzkopf, its chief implementer.
Both gave glowing endorsements of the Republican presidential nominee, saying he would fix U.S. military strength. It had eroded in the Clinton-Gore years, they said, and had not been revamped to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War world.
Dayton, the home of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was a logical place for Bush to showcase his two famous military supporters. In introducing Powell to the largely veteran audience, the Texas governor tantalizingly called him "a man who used to be in government, and if all goes well ..."
That remark was clearly meant to hint at Powell's potential appointment to a Cabinet post in a Bush administration, and the crowd applauded wildly.
Another prospect even more certain is that before Election Day, Bush will visit Ohio many more times, for one simple reason of political history: No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio.
Ohio's 21 electoral votes are the sixth-largest prize on Nov. 7. In the first week after Labor Day, both Vice President Al Gore and Bush have worked the state diligently. Both have paid special attention to Dayton and surrounding Montgomery County, known for its fickle voters.
In Ohio, as elsewhere, a large early lead for Bush in statewide polls has been eroding since Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate, his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention and the appearance of uncertainty in the Bush campaign. A Columbus Dispatch mail-in poll out last week had Bush ahead by 49 percent to 43. Another Ohio poll by Fox News and USA Today had it even closer: Bush 47, Gore 45, a 16-point drop for Bush in the same poll taken immediately after the Republican convention.
Three familiar issues - education, prescription drugs and tax cuts - are at the top of voter concerns. David Leland, the Democratic state chairman, says Gore has moved up because "he's delivering a message that resonates better" compared with Bush's call for deep tax cuts.
"There's a general feeling," he says, "that what we don't need in the country right now is a $1.2 trillion tax cut that benefits wealthy people. We've been there, done that."
With the unemployment rate in Ohio just 2.7 percent, half of what it was in 1993, Leland says, "anybody in this time who wants a job can have one." He points to signs at fast-food restaurants in the Columbus offering $500 bonuses to attract new hires.
Bob Bennett, the Republican state chairman, who says internal party polls have Bush with a lead of at least 7 percentage points, acknowledges there has been a drop.
Bennett observes, however, that Bush's tax cut is a hard sell in Ohio because "we've done such a good job on beating up on the deficit" over the years. "We educated the voters so well about how the deficit had to be paid down."
Both Leland and Bennett say the demand for federally supported prescription drug benefits is the hot issue now, with neither Bush nor Gore commanding it yet. Bennett also asserts that "Clinton-Gore fatigue" is strong in Ohio, something that should help Bush. But his state campaign director, Bob Paduchik, adds: "Our campaign is against Al Gore."
Politicians in most large states like to say theirs is a microcosm of the nation, and Ohioans of both parties are no exception. They point to the mix of urban and rural populations, of farm and blue-collar constituencies and, these days, a growing high-tech economy.
Ohio's claim to represent America is bolstered by the fact that the state has more cities of 100,000 or more population than any other. Hence, it has a wider geographical distribution of suburbia, as well as a conservative Appalachian belt that is almost Southern in character.
Although Ohio has been a must for Republicans seeking the White House, winning the state has not been an automatic door into the Oval Office. In 1960, Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee, defeated John F. Kennedy here, and in 1944 Thomas E. Dewey, with Ohio Gov. John Bricker as his running mate, denied the state - but not the White House - to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As always in Ohio, labor is a major force for the Democrats, with the state AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers and the steelworkers all gearing up to rally their troops for Gore. With this in mind, Paduchik has already organized in all 88 counties. The key in the state will be whether Gore can build up a sufficient margin in the northern industrial belt, stretching from Youngstown to Cleveland to Toledo, to overcome Republican strongholds elsewhere.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the former Democratic mayor of Cleveland, says: "We need an express train coming out of the north," and he claims to hear it revving up.
But Bennett says Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is made-to-order for Ohio.
"Anytime you get out of the mainstream, voters here are going to pull you back," and Bush, he says, is positioned squarely in it.