BELMONT, Ohio -– A few hundred hearty souls stood for more than two hours Saturday, in a sometimes-driving rain and temperatures in the upper 40s, waiting for Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to show up at this southeast Ohio town, in the heart of coal country.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney and Ryan haven't spent much time in this part of the state. Out of 45 visits to Ohio by the two since June, Romney's Aug. 14 appearance in Bealsville was the only trip besides Ryan's to this corner of the state, according to a catalog of candidate travel by The Washington Post.
But they are planning more trips here in the closing days of the campaign, Romney aides said. While the region is not densely populated, there are many counties which, if Romney is able to squeeze votes out of enough of them, could provide the edge he needs in a contest expected to be razor thin.
Two polls released Saturday showed the race in Ohio tightening. A Public Policy Polling survey gave President Barack Obama a 1-point lead, 49-48, down from a 51-46 advantage a week ago. A second poll, by Gravis Marketing, showed the two men tied.
Romney has been pulling close to Obama in Ohio, but has not been able to establish a clear tie or a small advantage. He pulled closer after his successful first debate, on Oct. 3, but has been unable to overtake Obama so far.
Southeast Ohio may be the area that helps Romney get there, his campaign says.
Obama will win the solid Democratic territory of northeast Ohio, around Cleveland, handily. Columbus, in the center of the state, gives a slight edge to the president, and the margins of victory for Obama in the city versus the margins for Romney in the Columbus suburbs will be key. The optimal scenario for Romney is if Franklin County, and the counties around Columbus, are close to a draw.
Republicans believe they are in very strong shape in southwest Ohio, around Cincinnati, in Hamilton County but especially in the counties around Hamilton. A senior Obama campaign official based in Ohio predicted Obama will win Hamilton again, like he did in 2008, despite the fact that George W. Bush won the county twice in 2000 and 2004.
But the Obama official, who asked not to be named so he could speak more frankly about strategy, said Romney will "get more votes out of southwest Ohio."
"Warren and Butler and Clermont counties -- that ring around Cincinnati -- is a Republican area. We did better than [2004 Democratic presidential nominee] John Kerry did," he said. "We'll get 31 percent instead of 29 percent like Kerry."
The rural counties in the northwest are also solidly for Romney.
Romney's recipe for victory then works like this: a smaller victory than normal for Obama in Cuyahoga County in the northeast, as close to a tie as possible in the central part of the state around Columbus, a stronger than normal victory in the southwest, and then key strategic victories in small counties in the southeast, increasing margins of victory from the past or reducing Obama's margins in traditionally strong Democratic counties.
"I assume that they're probably figuring they're not going to get any more votes out of Toledo, they're not going to get any more votes out of the auto-type of zone up in northern Ohio, because of the auto loan stuff, so southeast is the one place where they think they can peel off some votes, because it's probably a little more culturally conservative," the Obama campaign adviser said.
But he added that Romney has less appeal in that part of the state than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin –- the Republican ticket in 2008 -– did four years ago.
Belmont County, where Ryan appeared Saturday, has gone Democratic the last three elections, but it was one of the Ohio regions where Obama got a smaller margin of victory than Kerry did in 2004.
Each part of the state has a targeted message. In the southeast, Republicans are hammering Obama over coal. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel called Obama, "the general in the war on coal" at the rain-soaked rally Saturday. In Marietta, where Romney's son Tagg campaigned Friday, a huge billboard overlooking the highway reads, "President Obama's bureaucrats are eliminating coal jobs. Vote for coal."
Ryan told the crowd in Belmont Saturday, "The one thing you can do is elect a man named Mitt Romney who will end this war on coal and allow us to keep these good paying jobs."
Democrats countered with a press release touting the stimulus money and jobs injected into the county since the president took office: $49 million and 1,300 jobs.
But the main strategy of the Obama campaign has been to "muddy the waters," as one Democrat put it, primarily by raising doubts about Romney's commitment to coal, and capitalizing on an inherent distrust among many in the Ohio Valley toward the ultra wealthy. It is a strategy that, if successful, will tamp down enthusiasm and turnout in the region.
The tag line that comes at the end of the two pro-Obama ads running only in Ohio –- one focused on coal miners and the other focused on Romney's position on the auto bailouts -– is brutal: "Mitt Romney: Not One Of Us."
Playing up Romney's "47 percent" remarks is part of this strategy, and former President Bill Clinton told a large rally just outside Steubenville on Thursday that Romney's concern for the working class was just an act.
"Romney says, 'Forget about all that stuff I said for two years in the Republican primary. I won't mention it if you don't. Let's just pretend it didn't happen,'" he said.
"'I'm a jobs guy,'" Clinton said, continuing to mimic Romney. "'I have discovered that you haven't got a pay raise in 10 years. And now I care about it.'"
Clinton's voice trailed downward in mock sadness, and then his eyes went wide, and both hands went up to the side, all five fingers extended. "'And I'm a jobs guy!'"
Democrats are also reminding voters that in 2003, Romney stood in front of a coal plant in Massachusetts, where he was governor at the time and said, "That plant kills people."
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, introducing Clinton on Thursday, mentioned Romney's 2003 remark, and then said that Romney was "anti-coal" as a governor.
"He boasted, he boasted about his strict environmental regulations," Strickland said. "A coal miner voting for Mitt Romney is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders, and we know what Colonel Sanders does to chickens, do we not?"
Romney has his own ad hitting Obama on coal, showing a coal miner saying that Obama's policies "are attacking my livelihood."
Romney Ohio spokesman Chris Maloney fired back at Democrats on Saturday. "Obama's burdensome regulations have hindered coal production and resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs throughout the coal industry. As president, Mitt Romney will promote an all-of-the-above energy policy that harnesses America's coal and other energy resources to help create jobs across the nation."
Mike Carey, chairman of the Ohio Coal Association, said that coal production has decreased in the last two years, because of regulations, from 1.2 trillion tons to 816 million tons, roughly. "When you look at all of the layoffs that have been announced from West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and even here in Ohio, that is directly related to the amount of coal that's gone down and is out of production."
But the fusillades and the upcoming visits by candidates mean that coal country is going to matter a lot over the next couple of weeks, in a state where victory is crucial for both Obama and Romney.
CORRECTION: This article incorrectly stated that Barack Obama received fewer votes in Ohio in 2008 than John Kerry did in 2004, based on numbers from The New York Times. The Ohio Secretary of State website shows that Obama in fact received 2,940,044 votes in the state in 2008, compared to Kerry's 2,741,167 in 2004.