Salena Zito

ELYRIA, Ohio- Knocked off message for a second week by messy Secret Service and GSA scandals, President Obama on Wednesday tried to salvage things with a jobs rally among handpicked supporters in this Northeast Ohio town.

Standing behind him onstage were unemployed workers, ages 33 to 60, who went back to school to learn trades that might help them land jobs.

He began and ended his speech with now-familiar populist rhetoric about fairness and fair shakes. Sandwiched in between were out-of-place lines about free markets, personal responsibility and government not solving all of our problems.

At times the words felt awkward, forced. Six tepid applause lines in a 24-minute speech reflected a candidate testing out a new message that fell flat.

Mike Bainbridge was one of the unemployed workers gathered to showcase with other students the success of the president’s policies. At 33, he is about to graduate and hopes to use his applied-science degree to work in the alternative-energy field.

Bainbridge did not vote for Obama in 2008 and is not sure if he will this time, either.

"I am on the fence," he said. "I am going to listen to both him and Romney, to see who is best to lead on jobs and the economy."

"Where were the specifics?" asked a woman in a navy-and-white crepe pantsuit, walking to the parking lot of Lorain County's community college. A longtime Obama supporter, she said she was uninspired to volunteer, make phone calls or encourage friends to vote for him this year, as she did in 2008.

A Democrat and school board member from one district over, she declined to give her name. "School board politics are similar to operating in a sewer," she explained.

Ohio is key for both Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney -- the ultimate bellwether state in presidential elections.

Since 1896, Ohio has given its electoral votes to the presidential winner -- except in 1944, when it favored Republican Thomas Dewey (and his running mate, Ohioan John Bricker) over Franklin Roosevelt, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent, and again in 1960, when it chose Richard Nixon over John Kennedy, 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent.

President Obama's visit marked his 20th to Ohio since taking office; the plan this time was to tell voters how he intends to grow the economy and get Americans back to work.

Yet 24 minutes isn't enough time to tell much of a story. And rival Romney confounded Obama's jobs theme by visiting the same area the next day, using a shuttered National Gypsum Co. plant as his backdrop.

It's the same plant Obama visited in February 2008, promising to be a job creator. The plant closed a few months later.

In the past year, Ohio has been fourth in the nation, and first in the Midwest, in job creation. In the previous four years, before Republican John Kasich became governor, Ohio ranked 48th nationally.

Context is everything. For example, Florida is fifth in the nation in job creation -- yet has 3.5 million more people in its workforce. If Obama's policies worked, wouldn't Florida be beating Ohio?

If Obama's policies worked, Ohio's job creation should be far behind that in states with much larger populations. Yet Ohio actually started coming back from the dead when Gov. Kasich started enacting sweeping reforms to eliminate the state's largest-ever budget deficit, stabilize spending and cut taxes by $840 million. Those reforms initially caused Kasich to plummet in opinion polls, although recently he has begun to recover.

Obama led Romney, 46 percent to 42 percent, in a Quinnipiac University national poll of 2,577 voters released Thursday. The poll showed Romney outperforming Obama on the economy, job creation, gas prices and immigration; the president scored higher on women's issues and foreign policy. They were viewed equally on health care and taxes, with Obama considered more likeable.

As Obama passed through a quiet neighborhood here with neatly trimmed lawns and single-story homes set back from the highway, residents gathered on porches and in driveways to watch or wave at a passing president of the United States.

A church sign along the way warned: "Beware, the End Times are near."

It's not clear if that sign was intended as a harbinger of November's election.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.