Salena Zito

UNITY, Ohio - On a billboard in this small eastern Ohio town, white letters on a black background read: “I saw that.” The message is signed, “God.”

Yet that stark reminder shouldn’t lead you to believe that God is the only thing people talk about out here among the rolling hills and green cornfields. The presidential election is very much on the minds of regular folks.

“In some ways, I think we pay more attention to what is going on than the rest of the country,” said Samantha Steiner, a 21-year-old Ohio State University student and a registered Republican.

Steiner is spending the summer working at her cousin’s vegetable stand along Route 14; the vegetables and fruit lining the table would make a boutique market blush with envy.

“But we want to hear real, concrete answers -- not hope, not change, but how the next president’s policies affect our pocketbooks,” she explains.

Ohio is up for grabs politically. Once a stronghold for Republicans, it began trending Democrat on the eve of the 2004 general election. Had the state Democratic Party been better-organized and less of a bit player, Barack Obama probably would not be running for president because John Kerry would be the incumbent today.

“If just six Bush voters in each Ohio precinct had been persuaded to vote the other way, Kerry would be the president,” says Doug Kelly, executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Kelly admits the state party was not what it should have been that cycle: “There had never been a large focus on how to build strategically something that lasts, that has strong grassroots that mobilizes voters and moves the message.”

Presidential campaigns depend on heavy lifting from state parties and the national party to help them close the deal in battleground states. Kelly contends the Ohio Democratic Party is vastly different from four years ago. “When Ted Strickland decided to run for governor in 2006, we decided that we needed to build the party from the grassroots up.”

The state party focused on winning seats statewide and boldly seized six out of seven. Its success was a combination of utilizing the national party’s field organizers, now-Gov. Strickland’s network (a U.S. congressman, he had been redistricted numerous times) and the Ohio Republican Party’s weaknesses (enhanced by gubernatorial and congressional scandals).

“It paid off,” Kelly adds.

He, along with the Obama campaign, now wants to see those efforts pay off in the big dance.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.