"What we're doing 18 months out [from the presidential election] would ordinarily happen eight months out," said one official, requesting anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
Another factor that should favor Democrats: Municipal elections in largely Democratic cities and towns are the main attractions on the 2011 ballot on which the referendum would appear. To defeat the union initiative, Republicans will try to target rural and suburban voters who might otherwise be on the sidelines.
In such a closely balanced state, "oftentimes it is the campaign that makes the difference," said Eric Rademacher, who directs the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. "Ohio voters," he added, "do not always fall into the sorts of frames that one might expect."
That is true even among Republicans, torn between those who favor curbing union rights and those who feel the issue will backfire.
Republican State Sen. Bill Seitz sees "a very large risk that the political energy is shifting back in favor of the Democrats." A partner in the law firm founded by Robert A. Taft, author of the Taft-Hartley Act, a postwar response to labor's rising power, Seitz describes the new Ohio law as "so relentlessly anti-union that it goes beyond what management lawyers think is necessary to rebalance public sector management and labor rights."
"It's overreach. In my opinion it's overreach," said Seitz, a conservative from Cincinnati who voted against the measure and was subsequently stripped of a committee chairmanship by Republican leaders.
Alan Harold, a Republican county auditor in northeastern Ohio, said Republicans were suffering from a public perception that the new GOP majority tried to do too much too quickly. "It's this mentality that it was just rammed at us. No compromise," said Harold, who was co-chairman of Kasich's campaign in Stark County.
The union measure seems destined for the ballot: 231,147 signatures are required by June 30 to put it before voters in November, a relatively easy task in a state whose 8 million registered voters include 650,000 union members, in addition to union relatives and retirees.
In Stark County, halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, evidence abounded of the emotions stirred by the fight. Gregory Kinsey, 41, president of the Stark County Sheriff's Deputies' Assn., said he never would have voted for Kasich had he known the governor would heap additional pain on top of pay freezes his union accepted in recent years. Many government workers will pay more for health insurance under the new law.
"I just can't believe he's doing this," Kinsey said.
County corrections officer Eric Changet, an 18-year veteran who also backed Kasich and opposes the union measure, says the referendum will be close.
Hard-pressed voters who don't work for government "think it's time for someone else to take a hit," he said.
With stakes high for both parties, Mary Beth Medford, vice president of the Canton Professional Educators' Assn., expects an ugly campaign.
"This is such a pivotal state," she said. "The outcome can help determine how Obama is going to do in the presidential election."
Dan Sciury, head of the AFL-CIO Hall of Fame Labor Council in Canton, can still remember knocking on doors 53 years ago in a divisive campaign that defeated a Republican effort to make Ohio a "right-to-work" state. Twenty-two states from Virginia to Nevada have such laws, made possible by the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibit requiring union membership as a condition of employment.
"This is the most excited I've seen our members since '58," Sciury said. He also predicted — as do others on both sides of this year's fight — that if labor's referendum fails, a new Republican right-to-work push will likely come next.