CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — He buddied up with bikers, posed for countless pictures at a pizza place and downed an ice cream cone at a Dairy Queen.

Joe Biden loves Ohio.

The only question now is whether Ohio loves him – and President Barack Obama.

The vice president toured the state by car over the weekend in a journey that was part campaign rally, part family road trip. Biden, accompanied by his sister, Valerie, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a longtime friend, said rural southern Ohio reminds him of northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up in Scranton.

"This is kind of like coming home," he told a crowd in Portsmouth, near the Kentucky state line. "I feel really comfortable here. I've been here a lot – and I plan on coming back a lot."

Biden makes good on that promise Wednesday, when he campaigns in Dayton – his third trip to Ohio in the past two weeks. Obama will travel to Columbus and Cincinnati on Monday, his second visit to Ohio this month.

The Democrats' frequent visits underscore Ohio's role as a crucial battleground in the race for president. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and Biden and Obama are doing everything they can to make sure the state's 18 electoral votes stay in the Democratic column.

Both Republicans and Democrats say internal surveys show a tight race in Ohio, with Obama narrowly ahead.

Biden's two-day tour through central and southern Ohio took him through parts of the state where Obama is faring the worst. Largely white and working class, towns such as Portsmouth and Zanesville were hit hard by the recession and have keenly felt the loss of manufacturing jobs in the past decade.

The Obama campaign believes Biden's middle-class roots and Everyman style fit rural Ohio, and they have tapped him as a top ambassador to working-class families.

In a fiery speech before about 500 people at Zane Grey Elementary, Biden accused Republican Mitt Romney of pursuing policies that would crush the auto industry and other manufacturers.

"Do the folks in Ohio really think that Gov. Romney, with his views on outsourcing, with his views on General Motors and Chrysler and beyond that, do they honestly believe that if he had been president the last four years that today, that there would be today 115,000 auto jobs in Ohio?" Biden said at the school in Zanesville, a town which won brief fame last year as the place where lions and tigers were released from private cages and then killed. Zanesville is about 55 miles east of Columbus.

While his speeches were filled with attacks against Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Biden also took time to make a more informal connection with Ohio voters, as he stopped – sometimes for more than an hour at a time – at restaurants and a local campaign office.

His visit to a Seaman, Ohio, diner instantly became a famous campaign moment, after an Associated Press photo of Biden cozying up with a female biker went viral. At that stop and others, Biden hugged supporters, joked about interrupting their meals and listened intently as Ohioans told him their stories.

He declined no photo requests through two full days – and always there was a search for connection.

"Where'd you live in Delaware? Newark? You're kidding me!" he told a voter in Chillicothe, in southern Ohio. "I'm glad you know what team you're on. I'm on your team."

Biden was speaking to the man by cellphone after he grabbed it from a campaign volunteer who was making calls as part of a "weekend of action" to round up support for Democrats in Ohio's coal country.

Biden initially was talking to the man's wife, but demanded to speak to her husband after learning he was originally from Delaware. Biden, a former Delaware senator, had an animated conversation as a roomful of reporters and campaign volunteers looked on.

Minutes later, the man, Jack Woods, showed up at the campaign office – just as Biden had requested.

"He knew me when," Biden said as he and Woods posed for a picture.

Earlier, during a visit to a pizza parlor in Jackson, Ohio, Biden faced a tougher crowd.

"All you wanted was a quiet dinner and the vice president shows up," he said to no one in particular as he entered Cardo's Pizza. The restaurant's customers were friendly to Biden and some posed for pictures with him. But many at the restaurant in the heavily Republican area said they had no plans to vote for Obama and Biden.

The store's owner, John Moore, a father of four who has owned Cardo's for 23 years, politely chatted with Biden, but said later that he does not support the Democratic ticket. Moore opposes abortion.

Moore quipped about the VP's visit: "Someone asked me if this happens every Saturday night. I said: `World leaders come here every Saturday night.'"

Sydney Humphreys, an 11-year-old cheerleader who was eating dinner with her family, said "it was pretty cool" to meet the vice president. But she, too, said she is not a supporter. She's a Romney fan.

Biden took little notice of his hosts' political leanings, hugging or high-fiving nearly everyone he saw after four formal campaign speeches and an equal number of informal stops. He frequently noted red-clad Ohio State Buckeye fans, out in force on a football Saturday.

Chatting with a football coach in Jackson, Biden said: "The most exciting night of my life was Friday night. That's when I'd play ball."

Cathy Pool, 48, of Chillicothe, sporting a red Ohio State T-shirt, told Biden that she and her partner of nearly 25 years, Mendy Yates, were celebrating their anniversary this year. Ohio law prohibits them from marrying, but Biden told Pool, "It's going to happen."

Biden's words "meant everything in the world to me," said Pool, a nurse who started volunteering for Obama a month ago after Romney visited Chillicothe. "It's nice to be acknowledged."

While crowds at Biden's speeches were small – he spoke to fewer than 2,600 people over two days – they were enthusiastic.

Strickland, the former governor, traveled with Biden all weekend and introduced him at all four speeches.

Obama doesn't have to win southern Ohio for the intense effort here to pay off, Strickland said. "If we can increase the percentage (of the Obama vote) from 39 percent to 43 percent, that may be enough" to win the state, he said.

The winner in Ohio, he said, is likely to be the winner nationwide.

___

Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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