updated 2/23/2004 11:48:33 AM ET 2004-02-23T16:48:33

Democratic front-runner John Kerry remains the favorite of labor leaders and party stalwarts in Ohio, an economically ailing state that rival John Edwards could capture March 2 with his populist appeal.

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Strategists claim that electablity narrowly beats out the economy when it comes to Ohio primary voters’ top concerns.

“Both of the candidates are, issue-wise, going to find Ohio very productive for them,” said Paul Tipps, a former state party chairman. “The advantage that Kerry has over Edwards with Democratic voters here is that there’s a stronger belief that he can beat Bush.”

The Buckeye State is prime ground for discussions on the economy, jobs and trade. It is among those hit hard by the recession. About 270,000 fewer Ohioans are employed since President Bush took office. Statistics show the manufacturing sector, the state’s largest industry next to agriculture, lost more than half of those jobs.

Ohio has a long history of being both a battleground state and bellwether, even though in recent years the balance of power has tipped toward the GOP. Republicans control all the nonjudicial statewide elected offices and both legislative chambers. Democrats lead the state’s largest cities.

Only FDR, JFK won without taking Ohio
Just two Democrats — Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 — have won the presidency without winning Ohio. No Republican has ever been elected president without winning the state. Bush prevailed in the state by 4 percentage points in 2000 after Al Gore stopped campaigning there just weeks before the election, a move that angered Ohio Democrats.

Video: Ohio's gay marriage battle For Kerry, campaigning for the Ohio primary also lays the foundation for a possible general-election fight against Bush. The Democrat plans to invest heavily in the state for the March 2 primary and in November, with some aides calling Ohio “the Florida of 2000” — the state most likely to swing the election.

Those aides include some of the same strategists who advised Gore to pull out of Ohio in favor of Florida four years ago. Much has changed since then, they said, including Florida trending Republican and Ohio losing jobs.

Kerry made a beeline to Ohio after Wisconsin’s primary to court autoworkers, pipe fitters and other laborers, and is expected to start running TV ads in the state this week.

A poll Feb. 13 by the University of Cincinnati showed Kerry with a massive lead. He has stacked up endorsements from several big-city Democratic mayors and has the support of organized labor — most recently the AFL-CIO — in a state where unions still have strong ties to the Democratic Party.

The four-term Massachusetts senator is also buoyed by his front-runner’s shine. He’s won 15 of 17 nominating contests, and leads in the delegate chase. Edwards has won just one state, South Carolina, where he was born. At stake in Ohio are 140 delegates.

“Ohio is John Kerry’s to lose,” said Dale Butland, an Ohio Democratic consultant who worked on former Sen. John Glenn’s campaigns.

Edwards is focusing heavily on Georgia and New York as well as Ohio to court rank-and-file union members in an election cycle that has proven that labor doesn’t vote as a monolith. He is highlighting his blue-collar background while criticizing Kerry for voting in 1993 for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been blamed pushed high-paying jobs overseas.

Edwards starts running TV ads
Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, wasn’t in the Senate then, but he says he opposes the pact. He started running TV ads in the state on Sunday that focus on manufacturing and jobs.

Democrats offer anecdotal evidence that supporters of former candidate Howard Dean are moving toward Edwards, not Kerry. Steve Chaffin, Dean’s Ohio coordinator, just joined Edwards’ campaign and said the candidate’s populist message and outsider’s pitch has appealed to Dean backers. Chaffin also said, “There is a lot of bad history with Kerry.”

Kerry, because he typically attracts staunch liberal voters, is expected to do well in the labor-heavy bastions of the state, such as the Rust Belt swath of Northeast Ohio. Edwards, whose surprise showing in Wisconsin was fueled largely by Republican and independent voters, probably will fare better in the more conservative and rural areas of middle and southern Ohio.

Anyone can vote in Ohio Democratic primaries, but Republicans hesitate to do so because their party affiliation automatically switches and they must sign a statement of support for the Democratic Party.

“It will dissuade some from crossing over because they don’t want ‘D’ next to their name, and that could hurt Edwards,” said Dennis Lieberman, the party chairman in Montgomery County, which includes Dayton.

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