- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

He may have passed over Cleveland as the site of next year’s Democratic National Convention, but President Obama continues to pay extraordinary attention to the lakeside city, making his sixth trip in two years there Tuesday and his 13th overall to Ohio, a key state in recent presidential elections.

This time around the president was courting small businesses, while in the past he has used the Buckeye State to push for his health care law and tout the results of his $814 billion stimulus program.

“It is wonderful to be back in Ohio,” Mr. Obama told an audience at Cleveland State University, showing off his local bona fides with a joke about the city’s former basketball superstar LeBron James and giving a quick shoutout to Bubba’s BBQ in nearby Avon, Ohio.

The president’s fondness for Ohio is not surprising. Even though it will drop from 20 to 18 electoral votes as a result of last year’s census, the state continues to be the gatekeeper for presidents, and particularly for any Republicans who want to unseat Mr. Obama.

“Republicans have never won the White House without carrying Ohio and that’s very much on the minds of Democrats,” said Alexander Lamis, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who noted that recent signs don’t bode well for Mr. Obama.

Riding tea party discontent and fears of continued economic doldrums, Republicans captured the governorship, the state house and five congressional seats in November — a sweep that occurred despite a pair of high-profile political rallies in the state hosted by Mr. Obama on the eve of the vote. And polls now show the president, who won the state by 4 percentage points in 2008, holds only a narrow lead over some potential Republican challengers.

Tuesday’s forum on small business at Cleveland State marked Mr. Obama’s first trip of the year to Ohio, and he brought a group of high-ranking administration officials with him to tout his administration’s policies, such as tax credits and loan assistance to firms that are struggling to expand.

Asked during one of the breakout sessions why he keeps coming back to Cleveland, the president said it’s because the city is the focal point for the kind of economic experimentation that will determine whether cities that depended on manufacturing can thrive in new economic conditions.

“As the economy changed, a lot of people wrote off Cleveland as a shell of its former self. But you, all of you in the audience, you knew differently,” the president said. “You’ve been working to reinvent the Rust Belt as the Tech Belt.”

For their part, Republicans have criticized the White House for undermining small businesses with burdensome rules and regulatory uncertainty. Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, echoed that theme in a statement on Mr. Obama’s visit to his home state.

“Overly burdensome regulations, a health care law that makes it harder to create jobs, and the uncertainty caused by the administration’s tax and budget policies are all stifling job growth in the private sector and making it harder for Ohio to dig out,” Mr. Portman said. “I hope the president uses this trip to Ohio to say that he will get the spending under control, put forward a serious budget and join with Republicans and Democrats alike to foster an environment that will lead to private-sector job growth.”

Polls show both Mr. Obama and Ohio’s other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, are favored to win here next year but the numbers indicate the races could be tough.

A January Quinnipiac University survey of Ohio voters revealed that less than 50 percent say they would re-elect Mr. Brown, a troubling number for an incumbent in a state where the GOP has a deep bench of potential challengers. Meanwhile, the same poll shows 48 percent of voters think Mr. Obama deserves a second term compared with 44 percent who disagree.

A recent Public Policy Polling survey of matchups between Mr. Obama and four possible Republican challengers in Ohio had the president beating all of them, but two matches were close.

The firm showed Mr. Obama defeating former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by just 1 percentage point and 2 points, respectively, while he topped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by at least 6 points.

“The road to the White House still goes right through Ohio,” Chairman Chris Redfern said in a December statement. “Our electoral votes will be even more critical in 2012 than they were in 2008 because traditionally Republican states like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia are not likely to stay in the blue [Democratic] column.”