By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
(CNN) — Polls show Mitt Romney trailing President Barack Obama in just about every one of the swing states where the 2012 campaign is being waged.
But Romney appears to be in deeper trouble in Ohio than elsewhere, an alarming development for Republicans who know that the candidate’s White House chances begin and end with the kind of middle-class voters who reside in places such as Akron, Cincinnati and Zanesville.
So why exactly is Romney trailing?
Two surveys released in recent days, one from the Ohio Newspaper Association and another from The Washington Post, crystallized the challenge facing Romney as he embarks on his second straight day of campaigning in the Buckeye State.
The topline numbers — Obama led by 5 points among likely voters in the Ohio poll, and a startling 8 points in the Post poll — only tell part of the story.
Romney’s favorable rating is underwater. Almost two-thirds of voters approve of Obama’s decision to bail out the auto industry, a staple of Ohio’s manufacturing economy. The president leads Romney by a wide margin on the question of who would do more to help the middle class.
And when voters are asked which candidate would do a better job handling the economy, Obama has a sturdy lead, undercutting the thematic premise of Romney’s candidacy.
Interviews with some two dozen Republican strategists and elected officials across Ohio revealed an array of explanations — and no easy answers — for Romney’s failure to catch on there.
Some pointed to the Obama campaign’s aggressive effort to hang Romney’s opposition to the federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors around his neck. Others said a hangover remains from the divisive 2011 battle over collective bargaining rights that hurt the GOP’s standing with working class voters.
A handful of GOP strategists blamed Romney’s standing on campaign staffers who aren’t Ohio natives.
One longtime Republican strategist griped about the “arrogant top-down” approach of the Romney team and said they have done a poor job listening to the advice of savvy Ohio strategists — a charge rebuffed by Romney aides who point out that field staffers from the Ohio offices of Sen. Rob Portman and House Speaker John Boehner have come on board.
Still others cited Romney’s lackluster political skills and said his stiff CEO demeanor as a turnoff for Ohioans, with one Republican officeholder saying that former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour wasn’t far off when he said recently that Romney is being caricatured as “a plutocrat married to a known equestrian.”
A man without a message
The main criticism that emerged, though, is that Romney is man without a message.
“We are still at a point where I think it’s still a winnable race for Romney,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “Generally when you talk people, there is a feeling that Obama hasn’t done that great a job. But Romney hasn’t made the sale. He still can. But he hasn’t made the sale yet.”
Another statewide Republican officeholder who — like others interviewed for this article — did not want to be identified criticizing the Republican ticket, offered a blunter assessment.
Both Romney and Obama, this official argued, have provided nothing but “narrow arguments” and “fantasy land” policy prescriptions for the country.
“Why is Mitt Romney running for president and what will his presidency be about?” the official asked. “I don’t think most Republicans in Ohio can answer that question. He has not made a compelling case for his candidacy. Don’t make your campaign about marginal tax rates. Make it about your children and your grandchildren and the future of this country.”
Romney is adjusting. The campaign, prevented from spending general election funds until after the Republican National Convention concluded in late August, launched its first statewide television buy of the campaign last week.
The former Massachusetts governor has also intensified his rhetoric on trade, long a potent issue in Ohio, accusing the president of failing to stand up to China and costing Americans jobs.
But Romney’s argument du jour — he has spent a week attacking the president’s handling of foreign policy and the recent turmoil in the Middle East — isn’t likely to resonate in Ohio as much as a concise and aggressive jobs-themed message, Republicans said.
Several Ohio GOP operatives even credited the Obama campaign for presenting a more consistent economic argument.
Fallout over bailout
Obama forces have persistently reminded voters about the auto bailout — on television and in small-scale earned media events around the state — and Republicans faulted Romney for failing to develop a succinct response to the criticism in a state where one out of every eight jobs is tied to the auto sector.
Romney wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2008 titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” and argued for a managed bankruptcy for the industry, without the use of government funds. In May, he took credit for proposing the bankruptcy idea. In August, he tapped a running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who voted in favor of bailout.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has aired multiple TV ads on the issue and synced their pro-bailout message with down-ballot Democratic candidates such as Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Labor organizations are leaving thousands of bailout-themed doorknob hangers and making phone calls to union members highlighting Obama’s support for the auto industry.
According to The Washington Post poll, 64% of Ohio registered voters view the federal loans to GM and Chrysler as “mostly good” for the state’s economy. Only 29% said the bailout was “mostly bad.”
Putting a finer point on the matter, one longtime Ohio GOP strategist called Obama’s advantage on the auto bailout “a kick in the balls” for the Romney campaign.
Ground operation a bright spot for Romney
One aspect of the Romney operation that earned praise from Republicans is the campaign’s ground game, which has made more than 3 million volunteer voter contacts so far this year and knocked on 28 times as many doors in Ohio as John McCain’s campaign did in 2008.
“It’s one of the better operations in the country, as it always is,” Romney’s political director Rich Beeson told CNN. “Ohio has always led the way and it is again this cycle.”
The so-called “victory effort” — a joint venture of the Romney campaign, Republican National Committee and Ohio Republican Party — has 40 offices statewide.
The Obama operation, which has been deeply embedded in the state for four years, has more than twice that number. But the Romney campaign has managed to keep pace with the president’s voter contact effort, data from to the Post poll revealed Tuesday.
The humming ground effort, combined with Ohio’s traditional GOP lean and what’s expected to be a more animated conservative base than in 2008, has Republicans confident that the final margin on Election Day will be much closer than the 5, 6 or 7-point Obama lead seen in recent public polls.
“Nobody will win Ohio by 5,” said Mike Weaver, a Republican consultant with more than two decades of campaign experience in the state. “Anybody who tells you that doesn’t know Ohio. This state is too close. It’s too divided. It will not be Obama by 5 or Romney by 5.”
Weaver complimented the Romney campaign effort and predicted a 2-point victory for Republicans in November but advised the GOP nominee to spend more time in the state and rely less on scripted remarks before large crowds.
“I think they need to get Romney here in Ohio more, and talking off the cuff more,” he said. “I think he is a sincere guy, and I think the more he talks off the cuff, the more people will like him.”
Another Ohio Republican strategist said Romney should begin dispatching his wife, Ann, to the suburbs of Cleveland and Columbus, where there is “room for improvement” — a nice way of saying that Obama has a double-digit lead among women voters in Ohio, according to the Post poll.
A lingering complication for Romney’s argument in Ohio is the improving state economy.
Mixed message from Kasich irks GOP
Republican Gov. John Kasich’s relentless boosterism for the uptick in Ohio job creation runs counter to the national Republican message that Obama’s policies have kept the economy from bouncing back.
The statewide unemployment rate has fallen to 7.2%, roughly a point below the national average. In bellwether central Ohio, home to the capital city of Columbus and its thriving suburbs, the jobless rate fell to 5.9% in August.
Kasich is not shy about talking up Ohio’s job growth, even if it muddles the Romney campaign’s arguments about the state of the national economy.
At a recent campaign event in conservative Owensville, a fiery Kasich boasted that “Ohio is rocking!” — moments before turning the microphone over to Paul Ryan, who proceeded to issue dire warnings about Obama’s economic policies.
The mixed messaging has rankled Republicans in the Romney and Kasich camps. Both sides have done their best to keep the tensions under wraps, but they occasionally spill over into public view.
Rex Elsass, Kasich’s media consultant and a longtime adviser, told CNN that Romney is “running counter to the reality and the perception of people in Ohio.”
“Romney would do better if he stood on John Kasich’s shoulders and said, ‘Here’s an example of a state that’s doing better with job creation, in spite of what the president is doing,’ ” Elsass said.
“When you run advertising here that’s running in the rest of the country, it’s inconsistent with how people are feeling about Ohio, that things are getting better,” he continued. “If you’re just telling people things are getting worse and you throw in a graphic at the end of the ad that says ‘Ohio,’ that’s not a state-specific message and it’s not working here.”
Romney has, in fact, complimented Kasich’s economic development efforts in a spate of local interviews and at campaign events — and there are no accounts of personal animosity between the two men.
But Republicans close to the campaign have groused privately that Kasich is bringing little to the Romney effort beyond appearing at campaign events, while Boehner, Portman and a handful of other statewide officials have loaned manpower and money to the fight.
Portman, for instance, has turned himself into one of Romney’s most reliable allies on the campaign trail, hosting more than 20 fundraisers and raising more than $2 million for the campaign.
One Washington-based GOP operative involved in the campaign and closely watching Ohio accused Kasich of not doing enough to help Romney win the state.
“No single swing state Republican has been less willing to criticize President Obama at important junctures in this campaign than John Kasich,” the Republican told CNN. “Anyone who doesn’t want an Obama second term should be furious at him.”