LEBANON, Ohio -- Just two weeks ago, Republicans here in Ohio, even in GOP stronghold Warren County, were filled with anxiety and doubt. Poll after poll showed President Obama widening his lead over Mitt Romney in this crucial battleground state. Republicans didn't know whether to believe the polls -- many didn't -- or admit their man was faltering in a nearly must-win state. Either way, it was a frustrating situation.
No longer. In the wake of Romney's decisive victory over Obama in the first presidential debate October 3, the campaign's trajectory here in Ohio is up, up, up. Not just in the polls, where Romney has cut a five-and-a-half point Obama lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls to 1.7 points, but also in Republicans' everyday lives as they talk to friends and, in some cases, volunteer for the campaign. And on Saturday evening in Lebanon, population 20,242, county seat of Warren County, where John McCain beat Barack Obama 67 percent to 31 percent in 2008, optimism had returned.
"There is hope, we have hope now," said Tracey Perry of Loveland as she waited for Romney to speak to a crowd of nearly 10,000. "We were afraid the message was never going to get out."
"We were depressed," said Cinda Hacker, of Centerville. "The debate turned it around."
"We weren't depressed," countered Brooks Compton, also of Centerville, who volunteers for the Romney campaign. "We were obviously nervous." After a moment, Compton added, "We're going to win Ohio."
Of course Romney says that, too. But now he sounds like he believes it. Unlike in months past, Romney's stump critique of Obama has bite. With time running out before Election Day, his bill of particulars against Obama is sharper, more focused, and ends in a punch line. "Instead of the people on food stamps, instead of the fact that half the kids coming out of college can't find college-level work, instead of the fact that one out of six Americans is living in poverty, what he wants to talk about is how he can save Big Bird," Romney told the crowd in Lebanon. "What I want to talk about is how I can save the American family and get good jobs for the American people."
"His campaign is getting smaller and smaller," Romney said of Obama, accusing the president of focusing on smaller issues at the expense of big problems like jobs and the economy. "And our crowds keep getting bigger and bigger. There's a crescendo of passion about changing Washington."
Romney aides say they see a clear change in Ohio since before the debate. "Dead even," said one adviser of the campaign's internal polls. Whatever the numbers, the crowds are definitely bigger. And not just here in Lebanon, where people filled a long stretch of South Broadway Street. Earlier in the week, Romney drew an estimated 12,000 in Cuyahoga Falls and 9,000 in Sidney. Things are getting better.
"I see Romney momentum in Ohio in several ways," said Mark Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist in Ohio. "People clamoring to get tickets to see him speak, people standing in line to get yard signs and then being upset if they run out, and polling that I see in my other races show him outperforming most other Republican candidates here." And more: in an email interview, Weaver also said he sees "more and higher quality grassroots contacts, a better absentee ballot 'chase' program, staffers and volunteers who are mostly from the state (as opposed to a much higher rate of imports for Obama)."
It's almost all attributable to Romney's debate victory. "I watched a couple of the Sunday shows and heard a lot of the experts say debates don't matter, and then I was on the ground in Ohio and people were going nuts," said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who has famously helped prepare Romney for the debates and has traveled with him throughout the state. Portman was of course delighted by Romney's win, but equally aware that a Romney loss could have been devastating for a campaign that many observers said was on the ropes in early October. "It's not only that [the debate] really helped us," Portman said, "it's that it would have been far more difficult had it gone the other way."
Danielle Low, a 22 year-old preschool teacher in Lebanon, is the quintessential Romney target voter. In 2008, she was newly eligible to vote, and she chose Barack Obama. "But then I gave birth to my first son, and I knew we needed a change," Low said. "We bought a house in '09 and we're struggling every day, my husband and I are. I just want to see things turn around. I want to be able to afford to have another child. I want to be able to afford to buy a house where we want to live, and right now, with the economy the way it is, we can't do that."
"I think President Obama tricked me into voting for him," Low continued in an impromptu discussion that could have doubled as a Romney ad. "I feel like he lied to me. He made promises he couldn't keep. He played on my young emotions. He played on me because I was young and naïve. I didn't know anything about the world. I believed that he was going to give us a change. I just feel like he made a lot of promises -- there's no way he followed through with them. I haven't seen any change. I've seen change for the worse, not change for the better. So I hope Mitt Romney can carry us through the next four years."
A woman standing nearby, Helga Clark, of Fairborn, whispered, "I hope she's one of millions who've changed their minds." Whether those voters are out there in truly big numbers will determine who wins Ohio, and possibly the presidency.
Even this late in the campaign, Romney's stump speech, which he has given thousands of times, can still take odd turns. For example, in Lebanon, with an obviously fired-up crowd, he told three morbid stories in a row, subduing the audience when he should have been revving it up.
First, Romney told of running into an old classmate from Harvard at a rally a few weeks ago. The man had been left a quadriplegic after a terrible auto accident, Romney said, but had not given into despondency and had remained involved in his business and in spinal cord research. Romney had not seen the man in a long time, and Romney recounted putting his hand on the man's shoulder and saying, "God bless you, Billy; I love you."
"The next day," Romney told the crowd, "I heard he passed away."
"Oooohhhhhh," went the crowd, audibly surprised by the story's sad ending.
Romney immediately launched into the story of a woman he met at the Republican convention who earlier had been packing a box of birthday presents for her husband, a U.S. sharpshooter in Afghanistan, when she learned he had been killed.
Another "Oooohhhhhh" came from the audience, saddened again.
And then, straightaway, Romney began a story he has told many times, about a Boy Scout troop that was very proud of its flag, which had flown over the U.S. Capitol. The scouts' dream was to have the flag fly on the space shuttle. After much work, the dream was realized. Then Romney told the crowd the shuttle flight that carried the flag was the Challenger, which exploded in 1986, killing all aboard.
"Oooohhhhhh," went the crowd yet again.
Romney said the flag was later recovered, in nearly pristine condition, from the Challenger wreckage. He had an opportunity to see the flag, Romney said, and when he touched it, he felt something akin to electricity race up his arm. From there, Romney declared that he loves this country very much. A short time later, he recited a few lines of "America the Beautiful."
One could feel the puzzlement of the crowd grow with each sad tale, its spirits sinking. This was a political rally. Why wasn't Romney talking about how bad Barack Obama is and how the only way things will get better is if Mitt Romney is elected president? That's what people came to hear.
A few minutes, the morose interlude over, Romney had the crowd with him once more, returning to his message of how to "get this economy going again, roaring again."
For now, the most important development in the presidential campaign is that Romney has managed to get his own campaign going again -- if not roaring, then certainly moving forward with an energy and focus it didn't have before. That is absolutely critical, because after weeks of hearing bad news on the campaign, Republicans in Ohio want to be up, want to be optimistic, want to believe the Romney campaign is on the rise and determined to win.
"I feel like the media seemed to be giving Obama the edge to the point where people were starting to feel a little bit deflated," said Gary Allen, of Lebanon. "That has a psychological effect on the voting public when you think you're going to lose. After the debate, that wasn't true any more. I think a lot of people changed their minds after that first debate."