Voters trekking to polling places in Ohio today are no strangers to political drama: For years they've watched their Midwestern home live up to its reputation as a quintessential swing state and a bellwether in presidential elections.
Exactly eight months ahead of this fall's general election, Ohioans are planted squarely in the middle of a dramatic moment again: Today's primary results could help decide the fate of Sen. Hillary Clinton's floundering Democratic candidacy, and could signal Republican Sen. John McCain's questionable strength among swing voters and evangelicals in a state that is vital to winning the White House.
After 11 straight primary losses to Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton knows that tonight is critical: Without wins in Ohio and Texas, Clinton's campaign could be damaged beyond repair, and pressure could mount for the senator to bow out of a race that is fracturing a Democratic Party torn between two candidates.
While senior Clinton aide Terry McAuliffe vows the senator will press on after tonight regardless of results, even former President Bill Clinton acknowledged it would be difficult for his wife to carry on without substantial wins today.
To that end, both Clinton and Obama have spent substantial time in Ohio, battling for a state with 162 Democratic nominating delegates, and 20 electoral votes in the general election.
The economy has dominated the Democratic race in Ohio, where home foreclosures are soaring and thousands of workers have lost manufacturing jobs over the last 15 years. Many of those workers blame their job losses on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), saying the pact has sent their jobs across the border or overseas.
Both Clinton and Obama have climbed on that bandwagon in Ohio, saying they would consider pulling out of NAFTA until they could better enforce or renegotiate the terms with participating countries. Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio told Business Week that both candidates are clamoring to strike deep chords with Ohio voters: "Both are taking an increasingly populist tone, molded for what they think Ohio wants."
That the candidates' economic message about jobs and NAFTA is tailored for Ohio became clear when they showed up in Texas: While both candidates have talked about trade and creating more jobs in Texas, neither one has emphasized pulling out of NAFTA in a state that has marked some benefits from the agreement.
By mid-day today, it wasn't clear which candidate resonated more with Ohio voters. Polls showed Clinton and Obama deadlocked in the state, with each garnering 44 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, McCain could sew up the Republican nomination tonight, but the senator knows that the general election will be an arduous war, and that Ohio represents a crucial battleground: At nearly every campaign stop in the Buckeye State over the last two weeks, McCain has reminded voters that no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.
Winning Ohio isn't often easy. The state boasts a Republican stronghold in the south and a Democratic core in the northeast. Independents, moderates, and swing voters make up most everything in between, and make Ohio an unpredictable electorate.
In 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry in Ohio, narrowly retaining the White House. Political observers attributed Bush's Ohio win to the turnout among social conservatives energized by a state marriage amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The amendment passed with 62 percent of the vote.
Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values, a pro-family organization in Ohio, was one of the chief proponents of the Ohio marriage amendment, and told WORLD that McCain faces a similar dynamic this fall: "He can't win Ohio without winning the values voters."
But winning social conservatives may not be easy for McCain: The senator's opposition to a federal marriage amendment banning gay marriage represents a major hurdle in the state, according to Burress: "He's got serious, serious problems with values voters."
That's why Burress pulled the lever this morning for Republican Mike Huckabee, and recorded a mass "robo-call" to some 800,000 households yesterday, encouraging voters to support Huckabee in the primary.
Still, Burress says that he'll vote for McCain if he becomes the GOP nominee, primarily because the senator has promised to nominate strict constructionist judges to the Supreme Court. Burress thinks that in order to pick up more support from social conservatives, McCain should unrelentingly emphasize his commitment to appointing conservative judges on the campaign trail: "He needs to say this every time he opens his mouth."
Ultimately, Burress thinks most social conservatives in Ohio will come around for McCain in the general election, but says the bigger problem for McCain is that they won't do it enthusiastically. Burress says he told McCain's staff last week: "People are going to sit on their hands until Election Day, and then they will vote for him. But they're not going to work for him."