updated 9/27/2004 3:07:37 PM ET 2004-09-27T19:07:37

Ohioans don’t lack for top-level political attention these days.

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Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has campaigned in Ohio 17 times, more than just about any other state. And on Monday, George W. Bush returns to the Buckeye State for the 26th visit of his presidency after an absence of little less than two weeks. He’s due back again Saturday.

Taking a break from a weekend of preparations at his central Texas ranch for his first of three pre-election debates with Kerry, Bush tends first to his political fortunes at a county fairgrounds in Springfield to speak on education.

Later Monday, his campaign bus was taking him to a rally in West Chester, near Cincinnati, at a park featuring a World War II-era Voice of America station that transmitted pro-democracy broadcasts from 1944 to 1994.

Such areas of southwestern Ohio have been a Republican stronghold for decades and gave Bush large majorities that helped build his 3.6 percentage-point victory over Democrat Al Gore in the state in 2000. Now, Bush aims to make sure those margins hold so that Kerry will be unable to pick off a state he badly wants.

Ohio, along with Florida, is Kerry’s biggest and best opportunity to dent Bush’s advantage in the drive to amass the needed 270 electoral votes. Ohio provides 20 of those votes.

The state’s unemployment rate has risen to 6.3 percent and nearly 240,000 jobs have been lost since Bush took office in January 2001.

Along with his frequent visits, Kerry is spending aggressively on television ads to court Ohio voters, but polls find him trailing Bush in the state by 11 percentage points.

Back at the ranch Monday night, Bush has a clear schedule Tuesday for more last-minute practice sessions ahead of his nationally televised debate with Kerry on Thursday night in Coral Gables, Fla.

Both sides know the stakes of the debates, four in all through Oct. 13, including one between Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic opponent John Edwards. A recent national poll found that nearly one-third of those questioned thought the debates would help them decide how to vote.

On his return visit to Ohio on Saturday, Bush will address the National Association of Home Builders in Columbus, then travel by bus north to Mansfield and Akron.

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