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 hot dogs 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.
Democrats also are strong along the Pennsylvania border around Youngstown. And they recently turned Columbus into a blue island in the red sea of central and western Ohio, where Republican support is the strongest.
"The energy-rich hills of southeastern Ohio are traditionally competitive grounds for both parties," Nichols said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson is a Republican representing the 6th Congressional District that covers most of that southeastern Ohio territory, which has been held historically by larger-than-life Democrats such as Ted Strickland, former congressman and governor.
According to Johnson, the region is swinging strongly for Republicans this time.
"They are unhappy and disconnected by the policies of the president," he said of voters there.
He points to the health-care law and the stealth cap-and-trade regulations on the coal and natural gas industries — issues on which he won a surprise victory over then-Rep. Charlie Wilson in 2010 — as still fierce motivators to vote Republican.
Romney will not be able to simply rely on such extreme dissatisfaction to drive swing voters into his camp. Ohio voters are dissatisfied enough with Obama to cost him the state; however, they are not yet sold sufficiently on Romney to indicate to pollsters whether they will make the switch in November.
In short, a bad economy has provided Romney the opportunity to upset Obama. Now, he has to seize it.
To do so, Romney must find a way to connect with working men and women of America, said Nichols.
"He cannot rely on economics or policy disagreements to drive dissatisfaction," he explained. "Rather, Romney must exude the kind of command presence and confidence that converts potential supporters into followers."
Nichols’ conclusion: If Romney and his running mate, Ryan, "convince the disaffected working folks of Ohio that Romney is going to win, he probably will."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter