On ropes, Clinton works to hold Ohio

Days before the March 4 primary, Clinton retains an average 6-point lead.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Hopeful: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton met supporters outside a Bob Evans restaurant in Rio Grande, Ohio, Feb. 28.
Andy Nelson – staff
Determined: Joel Hatch (l) and Kirk Scwarzbach made calls on behalf of Senator Clinton in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 29. An average of major polls taken days before the primary showed Clinton with a 6-point lead in Ohio.
Terry Gilliam/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd during a rally in Westerville, Ohio on Sunday. Ohio's primaries will be held March 4.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton made a campaign stop at Ohio University Southern Campus Child Development Center in Hanging Rock, Ohio on Feb. 28.

Marissa Wilson originally supported John Edwards for president. But now the Ohio University student in early childhood education is on Hillary Rodham Clinton's team, making calls for her when her busy life of work and study permits. And when Senator Clinton appeared at the child development center here late last week in this poor, remote corner of Appalachian Ohio, Ms. Wilson was pleased.

"She's made an impression just by being here," Wilson says.

On the eve of crucial March 4 primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the New York senator's decision to spend precious time in the village of Hanging Rock (pop. 279) raised eyebrows – especially as it was her only publicized event of the day in this must-win state. Furthermore, the town-hall meeting with about 300 people was not open to the public. The guests, mostly women and many with tales of hardship, came by invitation only. The name of this hamlet, with its large rock outcrop from the cliff above, only served to reinforce the perilous nature of Clinton's campaign.

Her advisers maintain that her geographically diverse mix of larger rallies and smaller gatherings reflects her desire to reach out to the whole state – not just the populous Democratic strongholds. Southeastern Ohio is also the home turf of the state's popular governor, Ted Strickland, who is throwing his weight behind Clinton. And with just a day to go until the latest Super Tuesday, Clinton is hanging tough. The average of major polls gives her a 6 point lead over Democratic nomination rival Barack Obama.

Support from the traditional base

Longtime observers of Ohio politics are not surprised that Clinton is holding on to critical elements of her traditional base – women, Catholics, low-income voters. David Wilhelm, an Ohio native who managed Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 but who is backing Senator Obama, says there's a "stickiness" for the Clintons in Ohio. The state voted for Bill Clinton in both his presidential campaigns, and is conservative when it comes to change, he says.

"Except for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in Cleveland], this is not a state that gravitates toward celebrity," says Mr. Wilhelm. "And it's not [Obama's] fault he's become a celebrity, but I think there's a certain level of skepticism in a state like this which has seen tough times. They need to be convinced. They're not going to move there overnight."

Still, Obama has made considerable headway in Ohio. In just two weeks, he has gained about 20 points in the polls here. But supporters of Hillary Clinton remain undaunted. A group of women affiliated with the National Organization for Women (NOW), but here on their own dime, were in high spirits as they headed to an event for women voters. When asked how they are staying positive in light of Clinton's uphill climb in her quest to grab the nomination from Senator Obama, the frontrunner, they did not hesitate to explain their reasons.

"Excuse me, I'm 55 years old, and it's always been tough," says one longtime activist who asked that her name not be published since she is not authorized to speak for NOW. "We've never had an easy time. We've kept our spirits up when we voted for mediocre men. And now, we have someone who is truly the most competent, capable, qualified woman ever [ to run for president] who can break that massive glass ceiling. My spirits are about as high as they can go."

Marjorie Signer, president of Virginia NOW, says she thinks of her daughters as she travels around Ohio. "We're standing here for the women's movement and all the things that women stand for," she says. "We're not giving up. I'm not thinking, if we don't elect her, we're never electing a woman in my lifetime."

Back at Clinton's Ohio headquarters, in the state capital of Columbus, volunteers and staff are making calls, urging Democrats to vote and to volunteer for Clinton on Tuesday.

Carl Faller was a classmate of Obama's at Columbia University, but he's backing Clinton. "She's got a great chance with Ohioans," says Mr. Faller. "Economic issues are big and people are looking to her experience."

The continuing influence of Bill Clinton in Ohio also cannot be underestimated, and the former president has kept a packed schedule of appearances here. Speaking in a middle school gymnasium in Mansfield, Ohio, on Friday, the former president stayed largely positive about Obama, saying that Democrats face a tough choice between two "compassionate, intelligent" candidates. He also reminded the crowd of his way with words on the stump.

After talking about how his wife would alter the No Child Left Behind education reform, to big cheers, he said: "You could drop me in the middle of Idaho, 200 miles from the nearest Democrat, and I could give that No Child Left Behind line and the elk would applaud me."

Whether Bill Clinton's residual popularity in Ohio will give Hillary Clinton a boost on Tuesday is an open question. Phyllis Catt, a retired bus driver from Marengo, Ohio, hoped Bill Clinton would walk by her at the event in Mansfield so she could give him a big hug. "I like Hillary," she said, "but I love Bill."

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