Romney brings in famous friends as Obama leads in crucial Ohio

Mitt Romney and President Obama crisscrossed Ohio on Wednesday as the GOP nominee brought in some celebrity friends to boost his bid and the president sought to solidify his double-digit lead in the battleground state.

The candidates held a total of five public events throughout the day, trading barbs on trade with China and detailing their plans to reduce the unemployment rate in the traditionally blue-collar state. Ohio's 18 electoral votes are crucial in the race for the White House — no Republican has ever won the presidency without the state — and both candidates acknowledged its importance from the stump.

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For Romney, who a New York Times poll released Wednesday showed trailing 53 percent 43, that meant attempting to project confidence — and leaning on some famous friends.

The Republican presidential candidate was joined on the stump by homegrown golf legend Jack Nicklaus early the day and later by "Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe at a jobs roundtable outside Cleveland. He also deployed some of his top political allies, bringing Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to his campaign stops and on Tuesday afternoon appearing alongside running mate Paul Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

"Romney's in trouble in this state," said Kent State University political science professor Erik Heidemann. "He's a keen observer of the polls, and this seems to me like a last-ditch effort to win the state because it's quickly slipping through their fingers."

Heidemann says the guests, known for their blue-collar roots, were an attempt to appeal to the state's manufacturing core and particularly to men who might be fans of sports or Rowe's Discovery Channel show.

"Middle-class populism sells here," Heidemann said. "But it might be too little too late. ... If you average the exit polls from the last two elections, 3 in 4 voters had their minds made up before October, so we're in, for all intents and purposes, the home stretch of this thing."

The celebrities' mission was apparent, as both emphasized the importance of creating jobs — and the way the economy has lagged over the past four years.

Nicklaus said Romney would ignite “a real recovery” and return the country to “the America we were.” Rowe said that with a troubled economy, "we can't just talk about opportunity and we can't just talk about training."

Romney also continued to hammer Obama on the issue of China, a major issue in manufacturing bases like Ohio, which has seen free trade agreements erode U.S. industry.

“Competition from overseas that’s just often unfair has driven customers out of business, and when their customers go out of business, they lose business here, and people lose jobs," Romney said.

And Romney repeatedly drew contrast between the president's record on the economy and the changes he's promised if the Republican economic agenda were implemented.

“I don’t believe we can afford four more years like the last four years, and the reason I believe that after the debates and after the campaigns and after all the ads are over, the people of Ohio are going to say loud and clear on Nov. 6 we can’t afford four more years, we must do better,” Romney said.

Romney mentioned throughout the day that he expects to prevail in November, a tacit acknowledgment of the need to project confidence in the face of discouraging poll numbers.

The same Times poll that found Romney trailing Obama by double digits in the state now showed the president with an advantage on economic issues — traditionally the core strength of the Republican's campaign. A majority said Romney did not care about the problems of people like them, and more saw him negatively than positively, while the reverse was true for the president.

Obama looked to solidify that lead during his own events Wednesday, dismissing Romney's criticism on China as "just not credible" and said the Republican was "a lot like that fox saying, 'you know, we need more secure chicken coops.'"

“If you wanna know who's going to actually fight for workers, fight for American jobs when it comes to trade, you can look at the records,” Obama said. “See who said what before election time. … I'm not just talking the talk.”

Obama has emphasized that same message in commercials that are part of a more than $40 million ad blitz he has deployed in the state over the past five months. There's also evidence that the president is benefiting from a superior ground game. Romney has spent half as much cash, according to Federal Election Commission reports, although spending by outside groups helps to close the gap between the candidates.

According to a poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post, 36 percent of registered voters say they have been contacted by the Obama campaign, versus just 29 percent who say Romney's team has reached out to them.

Republicans have questioned the polls findings, with aides to the Romney campaign saying their internal surveys show their candidate remains within striking distance.

"I hope the Democrats believe it, I know I don't," Matt Borges, executive director of Ohio's Republican Party, told CNN. "This election is going to come down to turnout, the turnout models that are being used for models as the samples for these polls actually in some cases show the turnout will be better for Barack Obama in 2012 than it was in 2008. I don't know what universe these people are living in."

But the danger for Republicans is that if the polls are accurate, voters could be signaling an increasing wiliness to reelect the president — and cementing that opinion now, despite the time remaining before Election Day.

"The problem is that most people have their minds made up," Heidemann said. "Romney's trying to catch a train that is leaving the station."

— Alicia M. Cohn contributed to this report.