LORAIN, Ohio -- The office of Chase Ritenauer, the Democratic mayor of this north-central Ohio city, overlooks peacefully moored sailboats on Lake Erie – and a sewage treatment plant. So it goes for Ohio Democrats this election year: Some things look a lot better than others.
Republican Mitt Romney, they admit, has a real chance of putting the state back into the GOP column after President Barack Obama's hard-fought win in 2008.
Still, after a disastrous 2010 midterm election, Ohio Democrats and many independents rallied last year to defeat a Republican-backed labor union law. The big question this fall, Ritenauer says, is "whether they come out in full force for President Obama."
Ohio again is earning its reputation as the ultimate toss-up state. The proof is in the spending. Last week, the two campaigns and their allies poured more money into TV ads in Ohio – about $1.3 million each – than in any other state, including Florida.
Both Obama and Romney are campaigning in Ohio on Thursday, which marks Obama's 22nd visit as president. And Romney will make an all-day, three-town trip through Ohio on Sunday, part of a five-day bus tour.
As every campaign strategist knows, no Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio. Obama won it by 5 percentage points. Republicans hope 2010 is the best predictor of this year's contest. Democrats hope it's 2011.
No state saw a more sweeping GOP victory in the 2010 elections than Ohio. Republicans ousted the Democratic governor, enjoyed a landslide U.S. Senate win, replaced five Democratic U.S. House members and regained control of the Ohio House to take full command of the state government.
As big victories sometimes do, however, it led to what many say was overreach. The new governor, John Kasich, backed legislation to sharply reduce public unions' bargaining rights.
The move infuriated millions in a state largely built upon the unionized steel and automobile industries. Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected the law in a referendum last November, forcing Kasich to strike a more conciliatory tone.
The struggle in some ways mirrored Wisconsin's fight that ended this month when GOP Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall vote. Ohioans settled their dispute more quickly and less drastically, however. Unions and Democrats prevailed in Ohio, but lost in Wisconsin.
Kasich is proving to be a somewhat problematic ally for Romney. The governor's approval rating, while rising, remains well below 50 percent.
Kasich strikes a more bipartisan tone than Romney, and he repeatedly notes that Ohio's unemployment rate is nearly a full percentage point below the national average. That detail clashes with Romney's message that Obama has badly mismanaged the economy.
Speaking to reporters last week in Columbus, Kasich called for more cooperation between the White House and Congress. Republicans, he said, "yell and scream about Obama. Look, at the end of the day, the biggest problems that we have in the country will not be solved by just one party."
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern says Democrats suffered in 2010 because they did a poor job of explaining Obama's health care law in the face of fierce opposition from a newly ascendant tea party movement. Democrats are doing a better job now, he said, and he's pleased with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown's solid-looking re-election campaign.
Scott Jennings, Romney's state director, says voters overwhelmingly oppose the health law, no matter how well it is explained. The Obama campaign will open more offices in the state, he said, "but you can't paper over a lack of enthusiasm" with paid staff and office space.
"We're going to match these guys volunteer for volunteer," Jennings said.
In the most recent weekly tally of campaign broadcast spending, Romney's forces nearly matched Obama's dollar for dollar in Ohio. Romney and the super Pac that backs him focused mainly on urban areas. They heavily outspent their rivals in GOP-leaning Cincinnati, and slightly outspent them in Columbus and Democratic-leaning Cleveland. Obama's campaign bought air time in smaller markets that Romney skipped: Zanesville, Steubenville and two West Virginia towns whose TV broadcasts reach southeast Ohio.
Columbus – Ohio's capital, biggest city and home to Ohio State University – is a competitive region that Obama won comfortably in 2008 but George W. Bush narrowly carried four years earlier. Both campaigns will fight hard for its swing voters.
Strategists say Romney hopes to run up big margins in rural areas and the Cincinnati suburbs. Obama's campaign will need big turnouts from Cleveland's black and liberal voters, and it hopes union households in the struggling coal and steel regions won't abandon Democrats.
Ohio Democrats say they will force Romney to explain his 2008-2009 opposition to a federal bailout of the fast-falling U.S. auto industry, which Obama now calls a huge success. The revitalized car industry has been crucial to Ohio's steady job growth, and Romney's complex explanation of his stance on the 2009 bankruptcy restructuring is unconvincing, said former Gov. Ted Strickland, whom Kasich defeated in 2010.
"I'm very impressed with the organization the Obama folks are putting in place," Strickland said. "It's going to be a very close race, but I think the president has a very good chance of carrying Ohio again."
If so, Obama must inspire demoralized Democrats such as Tony Soto of Lorain, a retired Ford auto worker who ate lunch recently at the Three Star Restaurant on hard-pressed 28th Street. Economically diversified cities such as Columbus are thriving these days, but old industrial towns like Lorain feel overlooked.
"The economy is so bad here, people just up and leave," said Soto, 56, looking across the road at huge, shuttered steel plants. He said he would like to join his son in Arizona, but he can't sell his house in Lorain.
Soto said he probably will vote for Obama, but he showed no enthusiasm.
"No matter who gets in, it's all promises," he said, dabbing an onion ring in brown gravy. "A lot of people say this is going to be a ghost town pretty soon. I believe it."
Ritenauer, Loran's 27-year-old mayor, is battling that view. He says he wishes he had the money to tear down 1,100 abandoned buildings in this city of 64,000, most of them houses beyond repair. He also is looking for ways to relocate the sewage treatment plant and high-power lines that mar the view of the town marina, on Lake Erie.
As for Democratic leaders trying to bounce back from their 2010 disaster, the mayor makes no bold predictions.
"They're going to put on an impressive campaign, as they always do," Ritenauer said. "And we'll see where it goes."
Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth and Ann Sanner in Columbus contributed to this report.