By Eric Johnson
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - If Republican Mitt Romney looks in the rear-view mirror when he rides through Ohio on a campaign bus tour this week, he'll see Democrats not far behind.
Supporters of President Barack Obama's campaign are following Romney from town to town in a bus of their own as part of a hard-fought race for one of the most important states in the presidential election.
Led by former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, Obama loyalists will stage events with local elected officials, students, seniors and veterans to remind voters of Romney's videotaped comments at a fundraiser deriding 47 percent of the electorate as dependent on federal aid.
The shadow bus tour is part of a push by Democrats to use the firestorm over the video to keep the Romney campaign off balance in the Midwestern swing state.
After the video, "if we can't win this election, God help us," Strickland, the Obama campaign's co-chairman, told Reuters.
"Mitt Romney is either massively insulting half of Americans or he's massively out of touch with our lives — and while he tours Ohio, the DNC and Ohioans are going to call him out for it," the Democratic National Committee said.
A major Obama fundraiser in Ohio said he and other campaign supporters are using email and social media to send the Romney video to the networks they tap for cash, and Democratic activists in the state are dropping the issue into conversation with undecided voters wherever possible.
"We don't need to do anything other than use Romney's words against him," said Lisa Burton, 48, a pharmacist who decided to canvass voters for Obama this weekend after hearing Romney's remarks.
After the video setback and criticism from fellow Republicans that he spends too much time raising funds, Romney hopes to reset his campaign starting with the bus tour in Ohio, where Obama holds a 51 to 46 percent lead, according to a poll by Ohio newspapers released on Saturday.
FIGHT FOR OHIO
But Ohio is still a toss-up state where voters are deluged by television advertisements from Republican outside political groups and the Romney campaign has deep pockets and a solid ground game.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus acknowledged on ABC's "This Week" show on Sunday that Romney had a rough week because of the video, but he tried to focus voters on the weak state of the economy.
"Governor Romney's been pretty clear, it probably wasn't the best-said, you know, moment in the campaign and probably not the best week in the campaign, but I will say that I think we can look back at last week as a campaign in a couple months and say, this was the defining week in both campaigns, where I think both campaigns are crystallizing around a central theme, which is going to be, what kind of future do we want for our kids and grandkids?" Priebus said.
Romney is expected to hammer away at Obama's poor record on national unemployment during the tour, accompanied by running mate Paul Ryan.
But unemployment in Ohio is 7.2 percent, lower than the U.S. figure and Obama argues that the state benefited from his administration's 2009 auto bailout.
The Obama campaign has some 600 staff and hundreds of volunteers working from more than 100 field offices in Ohio, more than it had in the 2008 election.
"This is an economically populist state," said Greg Schultz, the campaign's Ohio state director. "What we've seen happen this week is really just further confirmation of what we've always known: Mitt Romney is not fighting for middle class Ohio."
In responding to Romney's video, the Democrats need to be careful not to be too strident, said Dan Birdsong, a professor of political science at University of Dayton.
"Too much overt negativity turns off certain voters, probably those in the middle more so than others," Birdsong said. "But there is also research that suggests the negative campaigning works because that is what people remember."
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)