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Various campaign signs are seen in Wooster, Ohio Saturday, November 3, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Various campaign signs are seen in Wooster, Ohio Saturday, November 3, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ohio offensive

Fight for 18 Electoral College votes goes down to the wire Add to ...

They say it’s all about Ohio – but it’s now all about the campaign workers in Ohio.

The presidential and vice-presidential candidates crisscrossed the U.S. swing states this weekend, and none more than Ohio, in which the race for the state’s 18 Electoral College votes is too close to call.

Mitt Romney’s campaign plane flew into the airport of this rusting northern city on Sunday as Vice-President Joe Biden’s Air Force Two plane was taking off. Meanwhile, in a full-court Romney campaign push, vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan stopped off in central Ohio to speak at a rally, while House Speaker John Boehner (the most powerful elected Republican in the country) made a whistle stop tour by bus of several communities in suburban and rural northeast Ohio.

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Mitt Romney kicked off the mad-dash weekend Friday night with a rally of 20,000 outside Cincinnati, the scene of a large rally Sunday night by President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama is scheduled to wrap up his campaign Monday afternoon with the mother of all rallies in Columbus’s hockey arena headlined by Bruce Springsteen.

The Romney campaign believes that support for Mr. Obama, even in the northeastern Democratic heartland, is weakening, and Democrats are doing everything they can to shore up that vote.

Both sides emphasize that the race is coming down to their grassroots organization and speakers try to pump up their workers for the task that’s still ahead.

“America is watching us,” said Ed Fitzgerald, the Democratic chief executive of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. “We can make history here.”

The push seems to be working: Across the state, lineups to cast ballots at early voting polling stations were enormous.

Voting in Cleveland’s poorer east-side took on a “tail-gate party” atmosphere as the lineup for the sole polling station snaked around several blocks. While vans drove up and down the streets playing dance music and speeches by and for Mr. Obama, people set up large grills and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs.

This was an almost entirely black turnout and one that appeared exclusively to be supporting Mr. Obama.

Pastors in the mostly African American downtown churches implored their congregations to walk or drive to the polling station and cast their ballots, in what has been called the Souls For Polls operation. “It started with the Obama campaign in 2008,” explained Thione Niang, an Obama organizer from Cleveland, now based in Washington. “And this year it’s gotten even bigger.”

While ostensibly the push to vote is politically neutral, the black community, especially in these hard-hit cities of the rust belt, are mostly Obama supporters. And outside many of the churches, Obama organizers dispensed a brochure entitled “We’ve got your back” a story of how and why the black community supported the President.

“It takes this kind of effort to get our community to vote,” said Darryck Collins, a black community organizer of a program called Pathways to Employment.

In sharp contrast, he noted with regret, few blacks showed up at the rousing rally with Mr. Biden in Lakewood, a suburb west of Cleveland. “I don’t know why more didn’t come.”

Black voters, particularly young black voters, have a poor turnout record, he said. With a very large segment of Mr. Obama’s support coming from the black community, the President’s success at winning re-election depends on getting those supporters out to vote.

Republican supporters are historically more reliable at turning out.

In mostly Republican Wooster, Ohio, a city of about 35,000, volunteers such as Brian Beam, a retired physician, have been canvassing their community since July, enduring doors slammed in their faces and long, cold nights as they try to wring out every possible Obama voter.

“I got involved because of Obama’s health-care program,” said Dr. Beam, 62, referring to a nearly universal health-care system that is being phased in. “I wanted to get my patients covered by some kind of insurance,” he said. “Every day, I had someone telling me they couldn’t afford to get the treatment I prescribed for them. It’s just not right.”

Across the street, Janet Brandt, 57, a volunteer for Mr. Romney’s campaign, says she got involved to “save freedom in America.”

“For 36 years, my employer has provided me, and all workers, with the best health benefits possible,” said Ms. Brandt, speaking of the historic Wooster Brush Co. “If the liberals win this election, and Obamacare isn’t stopped, I’m going to lose the right to those benefits,” she said, “and that’s not right.”

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