Amid all the spin-room racketeering, one credible theme emerged from Monday night's presidential debate: Campaign literature and TV or radio spots will sprout from the candidates' encounters over trade with China, the auto-industry bailout, and "horses and bayonets."
The first two topics will be fodder in Ohio, emerging as the centerpiece to President Obama's reelection strategy and a place where top Obama advisers intend to exploit embedded advantages over Mitt Romney on trade and autos. The last two will appear in Virginia and New Hampshire, ship-building swing states Romney advisers believe will angrily recoil at Obama's comparison of field grunts and cavalry with Naval glory and might.
"On the Chinese tire issue, the auto bailout, and the tax fight, the president offered a clear vision and that will play well in Ohio and also Iowa," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who was especially energized about the debate's Ohio implications. "We're at 50 there and they are not. What you saw in the debate was a clear indication of why the president will win Ohio."
If Obama wins Ohio and its 18 electoral votes, the Electoral College math for GOP nominee Mitt Romney goes from finding the value of X in algebra to counting quaternions in three-dimensional space. It can be done. It's just really, really hard.
In the case of Chinese tire imports, Obama did impose tariffs against Chinese tires in 2009 and the World Trade Organization upheld them to punish China for "dumping" lower-cost Chinese tires on the U.S. market.
Ohio is a legendary producer of American tires, though that industry is a shadow of its former self. Still, Team Obama believes that reminding Ohio voters that Romney specifically slammed the tire move in his 2010 book No Apology is a winner. Romney called the trade gambit protectionist, which, classically defined, it was. Consumers paid higher prices for tires than they otherwise would have. Democrats in Ohio have trumpeted increased tire production and job gains since Obama imposed the tire tariffs.
"Look, they are spinning all of that Ohio stuff because we are gaining there and they are worried," said senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie. "I don't buy it."
Obama advisers also believe the mildly testy clash between Romney and Obama over the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler — initiated by President George W. Bush and significantly expanded by Obama — will prove decisive in northern Ohio.
"One in eight jobs in Ohio are related to the auto industry," Messina said. "Do the math."
Romney advisers argue that the governor can win the bailout showdown because Romney's approach — a structured bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler — is more or less the path that was followed by the feds.
The big difference — and key sticking point — is that Romney originally advocated that private investors provide the capital to sustain GM and Chrysler while moving through bankruptcy reorganization; only after a bankruptcy filing did Romney suggest that he would support federal aid. Obama contends that no such private financing existed and only a federal bailout would have provided the cash lifeline to keep both auto companies alive. The bailout cost $85 billion, $25 billion of which came from Bush.
"We are not going to get damaged on the auto bailout because we are, and the governor is, absolutely 100 percent right on the facts," said senior Romney adviser Ron Kaufman. "The governor knows this and knows it cold and won't let Obama get away with distorting his record on the bailout. If they want to hang their hat on that in Ohio, they need a new hat. That hat doesn't hold water."
The Romney campaign also believes and intends to incorporate in stump appeals and campaign messaging their sense that Obama unintentionally insulted Navy enclaves in New Hampshire (Portsmouth) and Virginia (Norfolk). As far as demeanor, Romney advisers described Obama as needlessly belittling Romney on the topic of defense spending, Navy vessels and personnel. More strategically, they see an opening to push voters loyal to shipbuilding or Navy careers or jobs against Obama.
"Let's see how all that plays in Virginia and New Hampshire with people who make a living in around the Navy hubs," Kaufman said. "That will come back and it won't be good."
Of course, if Romney doesn't win Ohio he can't win 270 electoral votes without Virginia's 13 electoral votes and New Hampshire's four.
If you thought the debate was about Benghazi, Mali, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel, it was. But the down-the-stretch appeals to voters will flow through China, tires, autos, ship-building and the U.S. Navy.
Oh. And Ohio.