By Sam Youngman
PORTSMOUTH, Ohio (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is recovering ground in the critical swing state of Ohio as he rises in the polls and crowd numbers swell after his strong debate performance last week against President Barack Obama.
Despite pundits and pollsters dismissing Romney's chances in the state in late September, the Republican is now either tied or just barely trailing Obama in Ohio ahead of the next presidential debate on Tuesday night.
At an event with thousands of Ohioans on Friday night, Romney boasted of "a growing crescendo of enthusiasm." He has spoken to several large audiences in Ohio this week.
"(Obama's) campaign is about smaller and smaller things, and our campaign is about bigger and bigger crowds fighting for a bright future," he said on Saturday.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Romney looks determined to put the state in his win column in the November 6 election after it appeared nearly out of reach last month.
After Saturday, Romney will have done 34 events in Ohio since securing the Republican nomination in April. Eleven of those, including a bus tour, came after the first debate on October 3.
Before the debate, polls showed Obama leading in Ohio by as much as 8 percentage points. From October 4 to October 10, the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls showed Obama's lead at 1.3 points.
Also courting Ohio, Obama on Saturday touted the benefits of one of his signature actions, the rescue of the U.S. auto industry. The 2009 bailout has saved thousands of Ohio jobs, particularly in the Toledo area, and helped the state's unemployment rate of 7.2 percent stay below the national average, Obama's campaign argues.
"We bet on American workers and American ingenuity, and three years later, that bet is paying off in a big way," Obama said in his weekly radio address.
"I want to see more cars on the road in places like South Korea imported from Detroit and Toledo and Chicago," Obama added.
The Obama campaign also said that rocker Bruce Springsteen and former President Bill Clinton would appear at an Obama rally in Ohio on Thursday.
OHIO GROUND GAME
Obama's campaign has an impressive "ground game" organization - much of it left intact from his 2008 election victory - to get out the Democratic vote in Ohio. But the Republicans are fighting back.
In the 10 days since the debate in Denver, the Romney team in Ohio has signed up thousands of additional volunteers, said Ohio campaign director Scott Jennings.
"Enthusiasm isn't flowing our way just because Obama had a bad 90 minutes ... it's flowing because Obama has had a bad four years," he said.
Four years ago, Obama won the state by almost 5 percentage points over Republican Senator John McCain.
Obama arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he is doing preparation for the next debate with Romney at Hofstra University in New York state.
Senator John Kerry will again impersonate Romney in mock debates with Obama, and advisers David Axelrod, David Plouffe and others are also helping Obama try to avert a repeat of his lackluster performance in Denver. Vice President Joe Biden perked up the Obama campaign with a spirited showing against Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, in a debate on Thursday.
Romney spent more than two hours on Saturday morning in a Columbus hotel with his senior staff and Ohio Senator Rob Portman preparing for Tuesday's showdown.
At a rally on Saturday, Romney previewed questions he wanted to ask Obama at the townhall-style debate, citing the drop in average median incomes and the increase in the number of people on food stamps since Obama took office.
"He's now added 15 million more - more than the population of Ohio," the Republican said.
Romney also assailed Obama for not labeling China a currency manipulator on Friday. The U.S. Treasury delayed a semi-annual currency report until after a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers on November 4 and 5, which makes it unlikely the report will be released before Election Day.
"Do you know what they said? 'We're not going to make any determination until after the election,'" Romney said. "Let me tell you, on day one of my administration, I will label China a currency manipulator. We've got to get those jobs back and get trade to be fair."
(Editing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Cooney)