by David Jackson, USA TODAY
Buffeted by the winds of post-debate polls, President Obama returned Tuesday to the eye of battleground politics: Ohio.
Obama reminded students at Ohio State University in Columbus that voter registration for the election Nov. 6 ended Tuesday night, and he urged stragglers to sign up and participate in early voting.
The president even offered free transportation.
"There are buses around the corner that can get you there and back," Obama told people gathered on The Oval at the center of campus.
As the president tried to prime his ground game, his aides wrestled with more fallout from last week's debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A string of polls show that Romney not only won the debate, he also has closed the gap on Obama both nationally and in potentially pivotal states that include Ohio.
A week ago, pre-debate, Obama led some Ohio polls by as many as 10 percentage points.
"We've always felt this race would be close," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "That's not a new approach from our end."
It was Obama's 17th campaign rally in Ohio, the most of any state. Throughout his speech, he repeatedly emphasized the need to turn out the vote. "We need you," he said at one point, "we need you fired up."
In addition to selling the idea of early voting, Obama emphasized issues specific to Ohio, particularly the auto bailout. "We reinvented a dying auto industry," Obama said, noting it supports one in eight jobs in Ohio.
Obama and other speakers emphasized the importance of Ohio, a politically diverse state that has gone with the winner in 12 straight presidential elections. Eight years ago, Ohio provided the Electoral College margin of victory as President George W. Bush edged out Democratic challenger John Kerry.
One of Ohio's favorite sons, former Democratic senator and retired astronaut John Glenn, revved up the crowd by saying, "We may well be the state that decides this election."
Romney and company are also working the state hard. No Republican has won the White House while losing Ohio. Both campaigns have get-out-the-vote operations that emphasize early voting, from the suburbs of Cincinnati to the glass factories of Toledo. Early voting began in Ohio on Oct. 2.
Psaki said the Obama campaign will soon open its 120th field office in Ohio, and claimed an "inherent ground game advantage." She said the president's forces have been organizing the state for 3 1/2 years. "Ohio is Obama country," she said. "We absolutely feel that."
The Romney campaign emphasizes door knocks, saying it has made more than 1.2 million of them since May. "It really hit another level after the debate last week," said Scott Jennings, the Ohio state director for the Romney campaign.
The Republican National Committee cited a litany of new polls that show Romney moving up. The American Research Group, for example, gave Romney 48% in Ohio to Obama's 47%. A CNN/ORC International Poll, put Obama up 51%-47% in the Buckeye State.
"This is a race that is being competed every day," Psaki said.