"I think the intensity is on our side this year," said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, perhaps the most effective campaigner for Mitt Romney, as he shook hands Thursday afternoon with volunteers and supporters in a suburban Cincinnati restaurant. "Theirs is not what it was in 2008."
Portman was visiting the Firehouse Grill to campaign not only for Romney but also for Brad Wenstrup, the local Republican favored to win a seat representing Ohio's 2nd District in Congress. After the event, Portman came over to a table where my laptop displayed the RealClearPolitics average of Ohio polls. There were nine polls on the screen. Eight, displayed in blue, showed Barack Obama ahead in Ohio by anywhere from one to five points. One, displayed in red, showed Romney ahead by two points.
Portman studied the screen. What about those? I asked. Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, has said the race is essentially dead even in the campaign's internal surveys. But on the screen, there was poll after poll showing the president ahead, if only by a little.
"Most of them that are outside of one or two points either way oversampled Democrats compared to what we expect this year," Portman answered. "Some of them even oversampled as to what we had in 2008, which no one believes is accurate."
Beyond that, Portman said, the Romney campaign continues to lead among independent voters. (Those independents chose Portman by a landslide in his 2010 Senate run.) Put it all together, he explained, and those blue numbers on the RealClearPolitics screen just don't tell the story.
"I'm not saying that it isn't close," Portman said. "It is close. But we're not losing. I think it's tied. I do think we've got the momentum on our side."
In Ohio, with just a few days before the election, there is a bitter fight going on over independent voters. The Romney camp maintains, correctly, that Romney is leading among independents in nearly all state polls. The recent Quinnipiac/New York Times survey, for example, which showed Obama leading overall by five points, also showed Romney winning independents by six.
Team Romney argued that something was wrong with the poll because with both parties about even, independents will decide the race. "Chances are if we win Ohio independents by six, we win the state," pollster Newhouse said in an email exchange. "Period."
The Obama campaign scoffs at such talk. On a Wednesday conference call with reporters, top aide David Axelrod predicted the president will win independents in some swing states, but an Obama victory will not depend on it. "I think we'll be competitive with those voters," Axelrod said. "We may not win those voters, but we don't have to win those voters."
"We have the math, and they have the myth," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said on the same call. "At this time next week, President Obama will have been re-elected for a second term, and we can all get some sleep."
That's a lot of confidence, and bravado, in such a close race. After all, even if all the public polls showing Obama ahead in Ohio are correct, they average out to a lead of only 2.3 points. That's a tossup by almost anyone's measure.
Whatever the numbers, Ohio is in for a blowout of campaigning in the next few days. In the Cincinnati suburbs, Romney aides are planning for the kickoff Friday night of Romney's final cross-country tour, dubbed the "Romney-Ryan Real Recovery Road Rally." The show will be packed with governors like Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Sam Brownback; senators like John McCain, Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, John Thune and Lindsey Graham; freelance Republican stars like Condoleezza Rice and Rudy Giuliani; plus the occasional sports legend like Jack Nicklaus.
Obama will answer with a rally Monday in Columbus with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z.
The polls are a constant backdrop to the race in Ohio. And Republicans are acutely aware of what they say. But in the wave of enthusiasm that still exists after the presidential debates, Republicans are measuring the polls against what they see with their own eyes.
"I helped with the John McCain race four years ago," said Lee Czerwonka, vice mayor of suburban Blue Ash, Ohio, who came to see Portman and Wenstrup. "That one just never caught fire. There wasn't enough energy. This is night and day. I have volunteers coming from Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky. We've got a great base for poll workers, phones, door knocking. We've never seen anything like it."
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