Salena Zito

Of the cluster of primary dates calculated in advance to be a deciding factor in this year’s race for the White House, Ohio never was one.

Located at the back of the primary pack, with Texas at its side and Pennsylvania even later, Ohioans had no level of expectation to make their mark in presidential politics.

“Not only is Ohio now a player for the Democrats,” says John Brehm, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, “it sets the table for neighboring Pennsylvania.”

In other words, what happens in Ohio on March 4 does not stay in Ohio. With similar demographics and voting patterns, the Buckeye State may significantly impact the Keystone State by giving one candidate invaluable momentum before Pennsylvanians go to the polls on April 22.

Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University, says it is too early to predict who will win Ohio, but to know the voters there and their issues is a good start on calculating the outcome.

“We are probably very representative of Democratic constituencies that you see across the country,” Beck explains. “We have a substantial black population in our major cities, a small but growing Hispanic population and a lot of blue-collar Democrats.”

Beck says Ohio is a state where voters are less ideological than those in some other states, very pragmatic in orientation. “So a hyper-liberal Democrat does not tend to do well here. In general, (Ohio) voters have a huge middle ground.”

The most recent polls show Hillary Clinton could get back her groove in Ohio.

A SurveyUSA poll, released Tuesday, gave her a 56 percent to 39 percent lead over Barack Obama. Much of that lead was due to white voters and strong support in the central and eastern parts of the Buckeye State.

In this Rust Belt region, the big issue for voters is the economy.

“It is much more exaggerated here than in other states,” Beck says. “Ohio is second only to Michigan in auto-sector jobs, so we have felt the restructuring pinch, our foreclosure rate is high and our unemployment rate is at 6 percent.”

To date, Clinton has held the upper hand on the economy. January exit polls showed her base -- the elderly and lower- and working-class voters -- favored her on that issue. But that Clinton constituency has eroded; exit polls in last week’s “Potomac Primary” showed Obama gaining credibility on the economy.

Democrat strategist Mark Siegel says that for Clinton to win Ohio, she has to talk specific, short-term solutions, not just long-term ones.

“Hillary needs to craft a very strong, almost populist appeal, near Edwardian” -- meaning John Edwards -- “in that it may have to border on class warfare,” Siegel says.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.