JEFFREY BROWN: If there is a first among equals for battleground states this campaign season, Ohio would likely get the nod. Certainly, it feels as though one or both of the candidates is there almost daily.
Todd Zwillich of Public Radio International visited Northeast Ohio recently to look at how gains in the local economy offer both campaigns a chance to trumpet their policies.
His story is part of our new collaboration with public media partners across the country, as we bring you reports from areas that will likely determine the outcome of the election in a series we call Battleground Dispatches.
TODD ZWILLICH: That's the sound of the economy here in Northeast Ohio being reborn. At this brand-new manufacturing plant in Hubbard, Evets Oil & Gas, construction is booming.
CHRIS JASKIEWICZ, Evets Oil & Gas: We have doubled our in-house staff. We have over a hundred people working in our building, that is, engineering, project managers, drafters, superintendents, even office help.
TODD ZWILLICH: Chris Jaskiewicz, the company's chief operating officer, grew up in Northeast Ohio, which suffered through decades of economic decline. Today, with a business thriving on a resurgence in energy and auto manufacturing, he's feeling optimistic.
CHRIS JASKIEWICZ: There's a lot more smiling, a lot more sunshine around here, and we're all enjoying that.
TODD ZWILLICH: It's a far cry from the economic freefall Ohio endured years before the recession hit the rest of the nation, losing over 419,000 manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2009. And this corner of the state was one of the hardest-hit.
MAN: I understand there's a lot of people suffering out there. We have been there. We have lived through that.
TODD ZWILLICH: But, today, that is changing. Jobs are returning, and the economy here is hammering back. The most recent state employment data show Ohio has added more than 52,000 jobs since 2009, and unemployment has fallen below the national average to 6.5 percent.
In an election year centered on jobs and the economy, Ohio's now bustling Northeast Corridor has made the area even more of a focal point than in years past in this crucial battleground state for both presidential candidates.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Ohio.
MITT ROMNEY (R): God bless Ohio.
TODD ZWILLICH: President Obama and Mitt Romney's campaigns have practically camped out here. And each candidate has made multicity tours of the state just this week.
Winning Ohio is critical for both. But because of the electoral math, it's much more so for Romney, whose victory may well depend on the state's 18 electoral votes.
David Cohen is a professor of political science at the University of Akron.
DAVID COHEN, University of Akron: No Republican has ever taken the White House without taking the state of Ohio. And only a couple times has a Democrat done so. So, clearly, it is an important state.
TODD ZWILLICH: But also a complex one. The two driving forces of growth here play into the messages of both campaigns. Mr. Obama points to his administration's auto rescue for saving jobs.
And Romney emphasizes the need for domestic energy production as an economic engine for the area.
DAVID COHEN: We have had a lot of positive economic news over the last couple of months. And so the question is, is it too close to the election to really make an impact on people's votes? Or are people still kind of weighing the economic realities of the country and of the state?
TODD ZWILLICH: The city of Lordstown is home to a sprawling General Motors factory, the area's largest employer. Once on the verge of collapse, it's become a national symbol of the federal bailout of the auto industry and a centerpiece of Mr. Obama's campaign.
Former President Bill Clinton, who will visit Ohio next week with the president, pointed to the plant's success at this summer's Democratic Party Convention in Charlotte.
BILL CLINTON, former U.S. president: The auto industry restructuring worked. It saved...
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BILL CLINTON: It saved more than a million jobs, and not just at GM, Chrysler and their dealerships, but in auto parts manufacturing all over the country.
TODD ZWILLICH: Today, the Lordstown plant churns out the Chevrolet Cruze, the country's bestselling compact car. To meet demand, it's gone from one shift a day to three and round-the-clock production.
Dave Green is president of the local United Auto Workers union.
DAVE GREEN, United Auto Workers Local 1714: The whole economy will benefit from this because our parts suppliers, the people who work there are out shopping at the stores, they are paying taxes, you know, they're investing in their community.
TODD ZWILLICH: The auto industry employs one out of every eight workers in the state. Youngstown is the largest city in the region and reaped many of the benefits.
It's not just auto breathing new life into Northeast Ohio.
In Youngstown, the once declining steel industry has come back. And the evidence is French-owned V&M Star, which makes steel tubes for natural gas drilling. The company chose Youngstown for its $1 billion expansion.
You might not think of Ohio as an energy powerhouse, but it is on the verge of a natural gas boom of its own. Northeast Ohio sits on vast shale formations which are rich in gas and oil. Advances in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, have put the possibility of extracting that energy within reach.
Tom Waltermire is chairman of Team Northeast Ohio, a nonprofit economic development group.
TOM WALTERMIRE, Team Northeast Ohio: The gas drilling that is starting to happen in Ohio is just starting to take place. You know, in the last year, maybe 100 wells have been drilled. And two years from now, over 1,000 per year are projected to be drilled. So, that's just starting to ramp up.
TODD ZWILLICH: For politicians in an election fight, the question is who gets the advantage from all the success. Romney has made big gains nationally since the first debate. And polls show he's now in a virtual tie with the president.
But, in Ohio, Romney has seen much smaller gains.
Mr. Obama has consistently led in the polls here and still holds an average of a two- to three-point lead. With the resurgence of the auto industry, new steel production and the promise of large natural gas reserves, you can sense the optimism here in Northeast Ohio.
But a big question now is whether Democratic strongholds like Youngstown will give Mr. Obama enough margin to carry the state and stay in the White House.
Mr. Obama's popularity here is maintained by strong support from autoworkers like union president Green.
DAVE GREEN: In March, everything almost came to a halt, right? The contractors we had in the plant were backing off. There were helicopters flying over our plant taking inventory, people walking through our plant with clipboards taking inventory. They were going to liquidate our facility. OK? That's a fact.
So Mitt Romney can airbrush this all he wants. That's what was happening at the time. The fact that President Obama stood up and said, I'm going take a bet on the American workers and we're going to invest in this, when it wasn't a popular thing to do, absolutely he deserves credit.
TODD ZWILLICH: Mr. Obama needs to persuade more than just his union base that he's the one to continue this success. While the energy boom happened under his watch, Ohio voters are not all quick to give him the credit.
Chris Jaskiewicz of Evets Oil & Gas voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and says the president has done a good job over the last four years. But his business is preparing for the next four years. And he's decided on Romney this time around.
CHRIS JASKIEWICZ: I'm leaning more towards Romney in the sense that he is a businessman. He understands what we're going through. He understands the situation that many businessmen have been in, where government can step in and affect what are you trying to do. And that is create jobs. And we believe that he has a strong belief in energy independence in this country.
TODD ZWILLICH: Jaskiewicz is betting on the future of Northeast Ohio's gas reserves. But for others, it's already hit home. Mel Cadle owns a farm in the MahoningValley not far from Youngstown. He's leased a patch of land once meant for soybeans to Consol Energy, which has already begun drilling.
And Cadle is also betting Mitt Romney's approach to domestic energy and the environment will serve him best.
MEL CADLE, farm owner: The president has more regulations. He's put more regulations on farming and everything. I think I have seen a number, 200 and some regulations that he did by executive order, and plans on doing some more after the election.
TODD ZWILLICH: But the state's good fortune has wound up a complicating factor for Romney's argument that things have not improved in the last four years.
There have been mixed messages. Even Ohio's Republican governor, John Kasich, who was elected in 2010, points to the state's economic gains, like here at the party's convention in Tampa.
GOV. JOHN KASICH, R-Ohio: That, when we came into office, we were 48th in job creation. You know where we are today? We're fourth in America in job creation and number one in the Midwest.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
TODD ZWILLICH: Both campaigns are focused on getting people to the polls in large numbers and early. A recent court decision here extended the time allowed to vote before Election Day, and 35 percent of voters are expected to cast their ballots before Nov. 6.
Earlier this week in Youngstown, voters came in steady streams to the polling station for Ohio's MahoningCounty. The campaigns know that every early vote locks in support they already have.
And it's not just economic issues impacting voters heading to cast their ballots.
JAMI WILLIAMS, Ohio: Still pretty undecided. I also feel that Mitt Romney has a lot of ideas about the economy that would be helpful. I just don't always agree with his women rights ideas.
TODD ZWILLICH: Regardless of what is driving voters' decisions, this corner of Ohio could be the key to the Oval Office.
DAVID COHEN: I think whoever wins Ohio is going to win this election. I am willing to go on record and say that.
TODD ZWILLICH: And, as the economy here keeps humming, both candidates will be working hard to win Ohio and secure their own job for the next four years.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's more online. We talk to Ohio Public Radio reporter Karen Kasler about the mood of voters in the BuckeyeState. Plus, we round up some of the television ads inundating their living rooms. So, if you would like, you can take a look.