HIGHLAND HILLS, Ohio - Sen. John Kerry toured an abandoned steel mill in northeastern Ohio yesterday and spoke about job losses. Then he came here to the Cleveland suburbs to lead a "Rally for America's jobs." Today, Kerry will speak in Toledo - about jobs.
"We need a president who understands that you've got to stand up and fight for the American worker," Kerry told supporters at a community college.
Here, in one of the delegate-rich states with Democratic contests Tuesday, Kerry is trying to fend off a challenge from Sen. John Edwards, who has also campaigned hard in Ohio and has cast himself as more sympathetic to struggling Americans.
The two rivals are competing in a state that has lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. And the stakes are high.
Behind only California and New York, Ohio has the most delegates up for grabs among the 10 contests on Super Tuesday. Ohio is all but certain to be one of the fiercely contested states in the November election. A victory here could help Kerry or Edwards argue that he is the surest bet for Democrats to put up against President Bush.
Bush won the state in 2000 by just 3 percentage points over Al Gore. Many Democrats here remain frustrated, believing Gore pulled resources out of Ohio weeks before the election under the mistaken impression he had no chance here. With this state, Gore could have won the presidency, with or without Florida.
For Edwards, who lags far behind Kerry in delegates, the stakes could not be higher. If he is to make a case for staying in the Democratic race after Super Tuesday, the swing state of Ohio could be the place to do it.
Analysts say a victory could help Edwards play up his electability and cast Kerry as a candidate who won't be able to battle Bush in states that will likely be up for grabs in November.
Edwards spent last weekend stumping across this state, pounding the theme that, having had a father who was a mill worker, he understands the pain of manufacturing employees who fear for their jobs.
Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, arrived here yesterday to try to sustain momentum, hours after her husband left to visit other Super Tuesday states.
"If we can't turn red states into blue, then we can't win in November," she told voters at a posh Cleveland law firm. In a swipe at Kerry, Elizabeth Edwards said her husband "comes from where real Americans come from" and, when he talks about jobs, it is "not because he read headlines telling him they are important - it is because he knows it is important."
Speaking to reporters, she questioned why the Kerry campaign agreed to debates in California and New York but not in Ohio.
"Is it because we think we can't win in this state?" she said, noting that Ohio is more of a barometer of electability than those two other states are. "It is precisely because Ohio is not New York or Los Angeles that we need to have a debate take place here."
Invoking a strategy that propelled him to a close second place against Kerry in another industrial state, Wisconsin, Edwards has been criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, which Kerry voted for and which Edwards says has sent too many American jobs to Canada and Mexico.
He hopes to win over more people like 20-year-old Charles Strader, an independent voter.
Strader, who works the overnight shift at a Kmart to help pay for college, said his mother is a receptionist at a Cleveland-area aluminum company that has drained workers and is close to shutting down.
"Edwards wants to bring jobs back home," Strader said as he munched on a ham-and-cheese sandwich before listening to his favorite candidate's wife. He said Edwards' message "gives hope" to "working-class people wanting the American dream."
It remains to be seen whether Edwards will pull off the kind of late surge that brought him into a tight race with Kerry in Wisconsin after trailing far behind in polls. A survey in Ohio taken at the beginning of the month, before the Wisconsin vote, showed Kerry beating Edwards handily here. But no recent polls have been released.
Ohio, like Wisconsin, allows independents and Republicans to vote in the Democratic race. Exit polls showed that Edwards' ability to attract swing voters and independents led to his impressive Wisconsin showing.
Jim Ruvolo, Kerry's Ohio campaign chairman, said in an interview that the AFL-CIO's recent endorsement was a big help in convincing Ohioans that Kerry cares deeply about stemming job losses here. "That endorsement is a little bit of Teflon for us," Ruvolo said.
He noted, though, that Ohio can be unpredictable, with eight media markets and diverse audiences to attract. "This is an incredibly complex state to run a campaign," he said. "This is really a maverick state - I mean, Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale here - late - in 1984."
Mindful of the importance of Ohio, Bush's campaign has been busy recruiting volunteers and organizing. The president has visited the state 14 times since he took office.
No Republican president has ever won the general election without carrying this state. Bush's approval ratings among Ohio voters have dipped below 50 percent.
Still, Bush aides have long said they expected the president to have a tough run in the polls while Democrats were competing in primaries and grabbing headlines. They say he will bounce back once a Democratic nominee is chosen.
Bush might have reason to worry if he loses the support of more people such as Gary and Sue Lampe, registered Republicans who live outside Cleveland. They voted for Bush in 2000 and supported him in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks but plan to vote for a Democrat this year.
Gary Lampe said he became angry when Bush failed to prevent more Iraq reconstruction contracts from going to Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton, after allegations surfaced that the company was overcharging the federal government. "If I went down and robbed $1,000 from the bank down the street, I'd be arrested," Lampe said.
His wife said she feels Bush has grown "arrogant" in recent months and is "lost in his own vision." The president, in her view, is "losing touch" with ordinary Americans.