Salena Zito

BEALLSVILLE, Ohio – Seventy-plus men walked out of the ground, overalls and hardhats covered in coal dust, and onto the risers of a stage built for a Mitt Romney speech.

To onlookers, mostly press and staffers, the image was stunning.

To the 2,600 family members gathered in the gravel parking lot or under tents, eating hotdogs and drinking pop, it was a moment of immense pride.

This is what we do, said Tim Wiles: “We make things. We provide energy for the state, food for our families, and businesses are sustained around the county because they make money from us.”

The 54-year-old miner added, after listening to Romney, “This election is his and Paul Ryan’s for the taking. They need to be bold and remind people of what we stand for, that we are the backbone of this country.”

“America still is that competitive frontier,” said Josh Kinney, 32, standing beside him.

Energy issues have played a large part in driving dissatisfaction with President Obama in Ohio. For some, it is an economic issue; jobs are at stake. However, for even more folks, oil and coal are priorities and values.

“Ohioans think of themselves as explorers and inventors,” said Curt Nichols, a Baylor University political science professor. “And they have come to question the priorities of decision-makers in Washington when they aren't allowed to reap the natural harvest under their feet.”

How much of this dissatisfaction can be turned into votes for Romney depends on how well Romney can establish himself as the champion of these swing voters.

They want to know, will Romney fight for them? And, if they place their faith in him, is he going to be a winner?

How important is Ohio? If money is any indicator, both campaigns have spent small fortunes on political ads in the state this summer.

Ohio has voted for the winner of every presidential election since World War II except in 1960, when it chose Richard Nixon over Jack Kennedy. It is the quintessential bellwether state, earning the motto, "As goes Ohio, so goes the nation."

Nichols said many analysts believe Romney cannot win the election without carrying Ohio, “a state George W. Bush won only by about 200,000 votes in 2004.”

Democrats find their strongest support in Ohio along Lake Erie – basically, from Toledo to Cuyahoga County and Cleveland. Republicans maintain a stronghold in the Cleveland suburbs of Geauga County.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.