By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio (AP) — He buddied up with bikers, posed for countless pictures at a pizza place and downed an ice cream cone at a Dairy Queen.
Joe Biden loves Ohio.
The only question now is whether Ohio loves him — and President Barack Obama.
The vice president toured the state by car over the weekend in a journey that was part campaign rally, part family road trip. Biden, accompanied by his sister, Valerie, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a longtime friend, said rural southern Ohio reminds him of northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up in Scranton.
"This is kind of like coming home," he told a crowd in Portsmouth, near the Kentucky state line. "I feel really comfortable here. I've been here a lot — and I plan on coming back a lot."
Biden makes good on that promise Wednesday, when he campaigns in Dayton — his third trip to Ohio in the past two weeks. Obama will travel to Columbus and Cincinnati on Monday, his second visit to Ohio this month.
The Democrats' frequent visits underscore Ohio's role as a crucial battleground in the race for president. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and Biden and Obama are doing everything they can to make sure the state's 18 electoral votes stay in the Democratic column.
Both Republicans and Democrats say internal surveys show a tight race in Ohio, with Obama narrowly ahead.
Biden's two-day tour through central and southern Ohio took him through parts of the state where Obama is faring the worst. Largely white and working class, towns such as Portsmouth and Zanesville were hit hard by the recession and have keenly felt the loss of manufacturing jobs in the past decade.
The Obama campaign believes Biden's middle-class roots and Everyman style fit rural Ohio, and they have tapped him as a top ambassador to working-class families.
In a fiery speech before about 500 people at Zane Grey Elementary, Biden accused Republican Mitt Romney of pursuing policies that would crush the auto industry and other manufacturers.
"Do the folks in Ohio really think that Gov. Romney, with his views on outsourcing, with his views on General Motors and Chrysler and beyond that, do they honestly believe that if he had been president the last four years that today, that there would be today 115,000 auto jobs in Ohio?" Biden said at the school in Zanesville, a town which won brief fame last year as the place where lions and tigers were released from private cages and then killed. Zanesville is about 55 miles east of Columbus.
While his speeches were filled with attacks against Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Biden also took time to make a more informal connection with Ohio voters, as he stopped — sometimes for more than an hour at a time — at restaurants and a local campaign office.
His visit to a Seaman, Ohio, diner instantly became a famous campaign moment, after an Associated Press photo of Biden cozying up with a female biker went viral. At that stop and others, Biden hugged supporters, joked about interrupting their meals and listened intently as Ohioans told him their stories.
He declined no photo requests through two full days — and always there was a search for connection.
"Where'd you live in Delaware? Newark? You're kidding me!" he told a voter in Chillicothe, in southern Ohio. "I'm glad you know what team you're on. I'm on your team."
Biden was speaking to the man by cellphone after he grabbed it from a campaign volunteer who was making calls as part of a "weekend of action" to round up support for Democrats in Ohio's coal country.
Biden initially was talking to the man's wife, but demanded to speak to her husband after learning he was originally from Delaware. Biden, a former Delaware senator, had an animated conversation as a roomful of reporters and campaign volunteers looked on.
Minutes later, the man, Jack Woods, showed up at the campaign office — just as Biden had requested.
"He knew me when," Biden said as he and Woods posed for a picture.
Earlier, during a visit to a pizza parlor in Jackson, Ohio, Biden faced a tougher crowd.