As Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards race through Super Tuesday states from California to New York, they are paying special attention to one battleground in particular: Ohio.
Senator Kerry has already visited twice - making Ohio his first Super Tuesday stop and returning to launch a "jobs tour." Senator Edwards toured the state last weekend and has singled it out, along with New York and Georgia, as top targets. Both candidates are spending precious advertising dollars here, and flooding the state with surrogates.
In part, this intense focus reflects the fact that many of the most competitive primaries so far have come in the industrial heartland. With more than 270,000 jobs lost in the past three years, Ohio is dominated by the same economic concerns as Wisconsin and Iowa - where Edwards's relentless focus on jobs and trade helped propel him to surprisingly close second-place finishes.
But it also signals Ohio's looming importance in the general election as one of the top swing states targeted by both parties. In 2000, George W. Bush won the state by less than four percent of the vote. This time around, the loss of jobs could give Democrats an advantage.
As a result, the winner of the primary here will not only gain a significant - and in Kerry's case, possibly decisive - boost, but will be able to claim support in what could be the fall's most pivotal battleground.
"Ohio is a microcosm of the country," says Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. "The economy has been hard hit; it's lost a lot of manufacturing jobs.... It's winnable for Democrats."
No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, while only two Democrats this century - Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy - have managed to do so.
Like other rust-belt states, Ohio has a culturally conservative streak that Republicans believe will boost the president on issues such as national defense and gay marriage.
Yet both sides agree that pocketbook concerns will almost certainly dominate the campaign.
"Jobs and the economy are going to be what's important in Ohio," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) of Ohio in a recent conference call with reporters.
Bush's economic argument is likely to center on his tax cuts - which he says have helped the economy recover and must be made permanent. As Kerry closes in on the Democratic nomination, Republicans have already begun highlighting aspects of his record that they say would hurt Ohio's economy - from support for higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars to votes against defense systems, some of which are built in Ohio.
But for Democrats, the staggering number of jobs lost on Bush's watch alone may make this state highly competitive. Campaigning across the state, Kerry ticks off numbers like a mantra: 270,000 jobs lost, 150,000 in manufacturing. The state is "seeing its heart ripped out, right here in the heartland of this country," he says.
Ohio's economic concerns aren't new, but represent an old pattern of industrial decline. In Struthers, a blue-collar community in northeastern Ohio, Mayor Daniel Mamula says his town went through a "depression" in the 1970s and '80s with the decline of the steel industry, and that it is still struggling to recover. "It left a bitter taste here," he says."
While many of the industrial job losses can be attributed to increased productivity, the latest round of job cuts has put new focus on trade. Significantly, both Kerry and Edwards have distanced themselves from the free-trade positions espoused by Democrats like Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Edwards has been emphasizing his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement - as one of the few ways to distinguish himself from Kerry, who voted for the agreement. He has also emphasized his ability to relate on a personal level to the pain of displaced workers, having grown up in a mill town.
But Kerry, too, is stressing the importance of "fair" trade, vowing that his first step in office would be to appoint a commission to review all US trade agreements. His endorsement by the AFL-CIO may well neutralize any advantage Edwards hopes to gain with blue-collar voters.
At Astro Shapes, an aluminum plant in Struthers, worker Daniel Reyes says he'll cast his vote for Kerry, whom he characterizes as "one of us." Like almost everyone in this town, Mr. Reyes is concerned about jobs. He doesn't blame Bush for the decline, but he thinks the president hasn't been doing enough to fix the problem, and believes Kerry would do better.
But another worker, Ralph Eisenbraun says he's still weighing his vote. He likes Kerry, but says he's heard Edwards "voted more for the working man."
Not everyone here is for the Democrats. Electrician Dave Vasvari will stick with Bush this fall. He blames the town's economic problems on its "strong union mentality," not international trade agreements. "What company would want to move here?" he asks. "Everyone's on strike."
And many voters fall to the right of the Democratic establishment on cultural matters. Keith King, an Astro employee who's also a grievance officer in the steelworkers union, says he's in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Still, he's strongly backing Kerry - saying his previous primary victories and labor support make it easy for him to "follow the lead."
"The working force of America wants change," he says. "And Kerry seems to promise that."