ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Obama is hosting a Fourth of July barbecue for military families at the White House this evening. Tomorrow, he travels to Ohio where the political fireworks really begin.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports that the president is launching a two-day bus tour in a state that could prove critical to his chances of re-election.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Almost any roadmap to the White House includes a lot of stops in Ohio. As he traces the shoreline of Lake Erie from the suburbs of Toledo, to the outskirts of Cleveland, Mr. Obama will be spelling out what he says is the economic choice facing voters in November.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you believe this economy grows best when everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share and everybody plays by the same set of rules, then I ask you to stand with me for a second term as president.
MITT ROMNEY: Look, if there's ever been a president that has not given a fair shot to the middle-class people of America, it's this president, and it's one reason he's going to get defeated in November.
HORSLEY: That's Republican Mitt Romney on his own recent bus tour of Ohio. On a rainy June morning in Brunswick, Ohio, Romney promised to get America working again.
ROMNEY: We're going to take America on a course to ensure that we remain that shining city on a hill. Thank you so much. And let's get to the pancakes.
HORSLEY: Pancakes, ice cream, seemingly impromptu stops at the local diner. These are all staples of the campaign bus tour, which aim to showcase the president or would-be president getting comfy with ordinary voters, outside the biggest cities. The dress code is casual, but the mission is deadly serious.
Political scientist John Green of the University of Akron says both the president and his GOP challenger need every Ohio vote they can get.
JOHN GREEN: The candidates usually begin with their home turf, with the counties and communities that in the past have leaned strongly towards their party. But in order to win Ohio, one has to collect votes everywhere and find pockets of support even on the turf that typically belongs to the other party.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's first stop is Maumee, Ohio, in the northwestern part of the state, about an hour and a half south of Detroit. Like the rest of Ohio, this region has benefited from the turnaround in the auto industry. Green says that's one reason Ohio's unemployment rate is now 7.3 percent, nearly a full point below the national average.
GREEN: That's a strange place for Ohioans to find themselves at this time. And some of the bedrock Democratic areas, such as in northeastern Ohio, are doing especially well. That's not to say that the unemployment rate is acceptable for most people, but it's doing a lot better than we have in the past. So the area is a little bit more hospitable to President Obama perhaps than some other parts of the country.
HORSLEY: In fact, most of the battleground states have unemployment rates below the national average. The drop in state unemployment rates is one of variables forecasters at Moody's Analytics use to predict the outcome of the November election. For the moment, Moody's Xu Cheng gives a slight advantage to Mr. Obama, especially if he can hold on to the Buckeye State.
XU CHENG: Ohio is the single most important state for the two parties, in the sense that if President Obama wins Ohio, Romney's chance drops dramatically.
HORSLEY: We'll get a new snapshot of the national job market on Friday, when the Labor Department releases its June employment report. But one job seems certain to be in demand this summer: bus drivers in Ohio.
Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.