The mid-way stop on Barack Obama’s campaign to save the Democrats from electoral obliteration has taken him to Columbus, Ohio, a bellwether state he won two years ago but looks set to vote firmly Republican on November 2. It marks Obama’s first foray into a front-line battle this campaign.

The decision to come to Ohio was made only days ago and no foregone conclusion. It’s a risky move to bring in a president whose overall disapproval in the state is four points higher than his approval — 47-43. A president who isn’t even on the ballot.

“The First Lady is getting Ohio Democrats really excited,” gushed Cathy Johns, a local volunteer coordinator for Organizing For America. That’s not journalistic license, she actually gushed with every one of her limbs moving at once in different directions: “I feel really blessed … Michelle is loved in Ohio.”

Much has been made in the American media that this is the first time Mrs Obama will stand beside her husband at a campaign event since their last event of the 2008 election, also at Ohio State University. Cable news hosts asked if she was the Democrats’ real ‘secret weapon’. It’s all part of the royal mythology that spawns effortlessly around the presidency.

“Michelle took on childhood health and supported military families,” Johns explained, while her husband bailed out the banks. It’s hard to reconcile why those issues would have particular impact here over other regions. The mid-western state already has more active, less obese children, and relatively fewer stationed military for its size. Manufacturing dominates the north of the state, and agriculture in the south, but banking is still a major employer in the central city of Columbus.

But Johns isn’t here to justify to one reporter what value Mrs Obama brings; later she’ll tell a warm-up story for the crowd. It’s a feel-good tale of her freshman-aged daughter, a survivor of cervical cancer, dropped from her father’s health insurance and unable to buy her own. Last month they were able to get coverage again when a key provision of the health care reform kicked in, protecting those with pre-existing conditions.

With her college-aged daughter also in the movement, Johns is a little older that most of the campaign staff. Everywhere around us is a sea of volunteers drawn almost entirely from local campuses, herding tonight’s human patriot backdrop, also drawn almost entirely from the same campuses. National polls show Obama has a huge youth motivation problem, but you couldn’t see it here.

Student Democrats at the university had spent weeks lobbying for the president to visit, which many campuses do whether in swing states or not. Later we would learn the crowd reached 35,000 people — the highest ever for an Obama campaign event.

Many of the volunteers wear colourful t-shirts dedicated to Governor Ted Strickland, Senate candidate Lee Fisher, or a variety of House candidates. Separately each group has organised dozens of events for their candidate, but this is the first time they’ve all come together and they’ve pulled it off with just a week’s warning.

Officially, this event is run by Obama’s loyal Organizing For America ‘get out the vote’ machine, the volunteer base who chose him over Hillary Clinton early in the 2008 campaign, and still remain somewhat outside the fundraising influence of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). They’ve chosen to mobilise for just six strategic events this campaign, among them a favour-payback visit to Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s home state of Nevada. Governing will be hard enough after November without having a powerful senator offside.

The DNC is also here in Columbus, handling media and coordinating on behalf of the local candidates, many of whom are dependent on DNC funds for television advertisements. The DNC has its own nation-wide ‘get out the vote’ machine, considered by Washington number crunchers to have more reach and better organisation than its Republican counterpart, in part because it needs to be: it’s harder to get a busy college student to the polling booth than a retired person with plenty of free time.

It was that machine which helped Clinton win twice and it helped Democrats take back the House and Senate in 2006, well before Obama was a national force for Change(tm). But there’s a fear — voiced loudest by presenters on the liberal-leaning MSNBC news network — that the DNC machine has lost its way, with volunteers nowhere near the numbers they used to get.

In Ohio that’s especially evident. Enthusiasm among Ohio Democrats dwindles at 26% according to the in-state poll last week, compared with 57% of Republicans. Republicans are set to win the state governorship, Senate spot, and most House seats. If that trend mirrors the country then that’s not a winning majority, it’s a landslide of record proportions.

Organizing For America, however, is a well-oiled machine, loyal, and with tentacles in parts of the country Democrats usually fear to tread. They’re the storm troopers.

A glance around the t-shirts again, and it becomes clear. Most aren’t here for the DNC, Governor Stickland, Lieutenant Governor Fisher, or any of the House candidates. They’re here for Obama.

When Ohio’s incumbent Democratic senator and former astronaut John Glenn takes the stage, it becomes even clearer. A momentary “no!” was heard from every direction as Glenn announced Strickland as the state’s “best-ever governor”. Even Democrats aren’t convinced he didn’t play a role in the 400,000 jobs lost in the state in the last year.

Four hours after braving White House-level security and standing in place with only two songs from John Legend for entertainment, the crowd finally got to see the presidential couple in person, albeit no closer than a hundred meters. Unlike the pocket cameras that instantly rose for Legend, “Vote in 2010” signs appeared everywhere, blocking lenses and driving home the success of Obama’s personal magic.

For all the build-up Michelle’s address was almost completely devoid of substance: “Tonight this is about more than just politics,” the First Lady said. “It’s about whether or not we as a people can move forward.”

While Barack stayed on stage for Michelle’s delivery — undoubtedly for the photo opportunity — she left as he began his. And that’s when time could have turned back to 2008. The crowd, wild, hopeful and enthralled, listened as Obama asked for more time to get America out the troubles begun under Republicans.

Obama didn’t address any of the issues that youth voters have raised in Q&A opportunities like gay rights or immigration, but he did touch briefly on education, which had returned as a campaign issue following the theatrical release of the documentary Waiting For Superman. Instead, he spoke past the students before him and told America’s working class, through a tortured bogged-car analogy that only he, not Republicans, can restore jobs.

“You can’t have the keys back. You don’t know how to drive,” Obama goaded his Republican challengers. “If you want, you can roll with us, but you gotta be in the backseat. We don’t want to go backward. We’re moving America forward.”

Throughout the 27-minutes address, the crowd’s attention never wavered. Even the very few with seating stood for the whole address. It didn’t matter that he looked past them and directly at the cameras the entire time. If anything, his presence in front of a large crowd has grown with office, rather than diminished.

After the rally I asked a group of Ohio State freshmen leaving the grounds about Michelle’s impact. “Meh,” shrugged one named Lauren. She’d already pre-voted, the first time she has been eligible. “I only came because the president was here,” replied her friend Alex, who was also unimpressed with every Democrat actually named on the ballot but planned to vote for them anyway.

A second group of later-year students, less in a hurry to reach the pizza restaurants before they closed, agreed the president’s agenda was more important than the individual value of local candidates. “I think this campaign is about the stimulus, financial reform and the health care reform,” said Ravi, who voted for Obama in 2008. “He delivered on those things, maybe not perfectly, but enough that we’ll have a better future. But what have Republicans done this last two years? Say no.”