Voters cast their ballots Tuesday in Cleveland. (David Maxwell, EPA )
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For many in Ohio, the ritual of stepping up to a ballot machine on Tuesday came with a sense of relief that the long, ugly presidential race was finally drawing to a close.
"Awful, just awful," said Penny Dietrich, 63, a Worthington homemaker. "Both sides."
But in the end, President Obama's relentless attack ads against Mitt Romney, who answered in kind, were the key to his victory in a state that always plays an outsize role in presidential campaigns.
Obama's victory in Ohio appeared to vindicate his tireless pursuit of the white, working-class voters who dominate the state's election landscape. The backbone of his Ohio campaign was the federal bailout of the auto industry. Day after day, he reminded Ohio voters of the thousands of auto jobs saved at plants around the state.
And Romney, to his detriment, failed in his long struggle to find an effective defense for his opposition to the government bailout. It was a stand that might have helped the former Massachusetts governor cement conservative support in the Republican primaries. But it proved deeply damaging in the battle for Ohio.
Obama's victory was also the result of withering television depictions of Romney as an out-of-touch financier who built a vast personal fortune in corporate takeover deals that spawned factory layoffs, then used offshore tax shelters to preserve his wealth.
The assault on Romney's personal image proved devastating in a state where anyone aspiring to win a statewide election must demonstrate a firm commitment to fight for the working class.
Obama's approach helped him maintain his base of support in the same urban and industrial centers that buttressed his 2008 campaign in Ohio: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Akron and Youngstown. Overwhelming support among African Americans was also key.
Obama's attacks also undercut Romney in the conservative rural and suburban areas where Republicans perform best.
Obama, Romney and their allies spent $197 million on advertising in Ohio, more than in any other state.
In the run-up to election day, no fewer than 18 commercials on the presidential race were airing on Columbus TV stations. Adding to the clutter — and to the voter fatigue — were attack ads in campaigns for judgeships, the county sheriff's job and seats in the U.S. House and Senate.
Over the weekend, some Obama opponents started running some of the toughest spots of the campaign.
Secure America Now, a group led by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other prominent conservatives, showed Obama on what was labeled as "Arab TV," with Arabic writing on screen, criticizing him on foreign policy. "Time to get rid of this sorry president," an announcer said.
Another group, Special Ops Opsec Education Fund, ran a spot accusing Obama of lying about the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya and of leaking highly classified secrets, "endangering real heroes and families."
The effect was diluted, however, by the scores of other withering ads against Obama over the last six months. They often ran back to back with spots bashing Romney with no less fervor.
"We either had to listen to a guy we like a lot tell lies, or hear a guy we can't stand tell lies," said Daniel Ave, 52, after voting Tuesday morning at North United Methodist Church in Columbus.
Ave, who works at the YMCA, said that the president did what he had to do to win and that he remains an avid supporter. "His wife drives the bus in his family," Ave said with a laugh. "My wife drives the bus in my family."
With Obama scoring battleground state victories in Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Iowa, among others, it turned out he could have won reelection without Ohio. But the candidates' intense focus on the state, despite the nastiness, inspired many of Ohio's nearly 8 million voters.
More than an hour before dawn on Tuesday, a line started forming outside the Worthington Presbyterian Church polling station in a suburb of Columbus. So it went all over Ohio, as voters turned out in force to play their part in electing the president.
"It's something people around here take some pride in — that we have maybe a disproportionate amount of control in the outcome," said Doug Metz, a retired lawyer who showed up a few hours later to cast his ballot for Mitt Romney. "There are some solid people around here who make some good decisions. People around here are grounded."