Bleachers at one end of the field, with the words “vote early” in cut-out, standing six feet high at the back, the benches and steps crowded with people holding sky blue “Forward” signs. They’re mostly black in the bleachers, many of them middle-aged, folks who need a seat. In front of the bleachers, stretching down to the main stage about 500 metres away, a sea of kids, white, black, hipsters and straights, nerds and jocks.

The whites are mostly students, but there’s a few workers and suburbanites, a little older, cheaper suits, and neat dresses, Obama stickers on the lapels, buttons pinned to handbags. The black contingent are about 50-50, more work shirts and skivvies, some trousers frayed, and holed t-shirts, the genuinely poor.

The oval is at the heart of Ohio State University, a history-rich mega-campus sitting at the heart of the city of Columbus. It’s a gathering of the Obama faithful, town and gown mingling, the popular wave that took him to power. The crowd looks like America, as Bill Maher remarked after the Democratic convention, and sure it does, or the America that America likes to imagine itself as, colours, classes, mingling, the multitude in a sort of furious equality. But were that truly the case, Obama would win by 45 states.

Sadly, America is an older, angrier, whiter, place than this crowd would suggest, and that’s where the trouble lies. Blacks are 12% of the population, perhaps 40% here. This is smart America, liberal America, union t-shirts, and forceful volunteers. This crowd is won over. Beyond the miles of Ionic columns and leaf-muffled statues of the Ohio campus, is where the contest has to be won.

By the time I got there, through a wave of security run by, well, by the sort of angry minimum-wage service-industry white guys Obama is losing out by, the rally was in full-swing. Well half-swing anyway. Some local guy was revving up the crowd, but he was either keeping it at half-energy, or that was the only speed he knew. “We’ve really got to get out there and win this,” he half-said, half-whined, as the crowd kinda cheered. He was pleading, he was wheedling, he was less than fervent: “Obama’s got our back, let’s get his back.” That got a less than full roar, or did I imagine that? Obama’s debate performance had given the distinct impression that he didn’t have his own back, let alone theirs.

The spirit of the campaign since the first debate has been a little tired, a little hard-up for energy. There were 10,000 people here, maybe 12,000. A hundred miles to the East, in Cuyahoga Falls, Mitt Romney was drawing 20,000 to a rally, and they were turning them away for lack of space. Twenty thousand! Mitt Romney! The GOP have the blood in their nostrils, and the wind at their heels.

Those thoughts were interrupted by said organiser, introducing the next speaker: “Please welcome Sherrod Brown!” Brown is the Democratic senator from Ohio, and a reliably liberal type, but as exciting as an insurance adjuster from Cedar Rapids. Nevertheless, he injects the first hint of passion into the event: “We’ve got buses outside, we’re going to take you to the booths you can register and vote early!” Then he’s gone and the music kicks in. “Tonight’s the night everything could change.” The habit of all campaigns to use s-xual ballads undiminished. For months, Hillary Clinton had to do endure being introduced via Tom Petty’s American Girl (“cmon baby, alright, make it last all night”), which may or may not have been her choice but anyway …

But then Sherrod Brown has gone, and we get … Will.I.Am. The crowd goes wild, but not as wild as they could or should. “Wassup Buckeyes! I didn’t bring my band the Black Eyes Peas, but I got you the ‘Buck Eyed Peas’!” Another half-hearted roar. He’s playing some sort of mash-up jumping from Nirvana to James Brown, to Dinosaur Jnr, at which point he tries to get the crowd chanting, and then to Born In the USA which he refashions to “Made in the USA”, “can’t wait for the day when everything you want and buy is ‘made in the USA!'”. Really? This the policy now? This is the post-NAFTA position, economic autarchy? Suffice to say, it is not authorised by the management.

Then, inevitably, into a truly awful rendition of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, which also plays at Romney rallies, the song that was never a hit when first released, and has become an anthem of no-place America, yearning for something more, something undefined. “Streetlight people, walkin’ down the boulevard, shadows watching in the night.” It’s a great song to celebrate triumph, played a little early.

Besides which, Will.I.Am is wearing out his welcome. In 2008, he put together an ad chanting a speech of Obama’s, with Scarlett Johansson, and other luminaries which was nauseating, but nevertheless effective. Here he’s like a warm-up at the butchers’ picnic. Things have come to a pretty pass when even Will.I.Am can’t get the crowd roaring. By the time we’re ready for the man himself, the music choice is getting seriously weird, with the Zac Brown band’s “keep me in mind … somewhere down the road you might get lonely”. Jaysus, that’s the selling point? That’s the best there is to offer? Obama as best friend? As fallback rebound boyfriend? Well maybe it plays with college girls.

Rallies either rise to ever greater heights, and crest like a wave with their main act — or they break early, and leave everyone in the shallows, and this is that sort of thing. There’s a hiatus of 10 minutes or so with recorded music, and such energy as there is begins to flow away. By the time a local activist comes on — young woman, a signer-upper, too gushing about Obama, stroking one side of her hair in her nervousness — to introduce Obama, we were only half there.

Then he’s here, a speck in the distance, before a giant “Forward” sign, thin, tapering to a point, the now-greying hair and crisp white shirt flashing amidst the blue, blue of sky, blue of sign. Later, on TV, the rally played in the news feed, filling the screen, he’ll seem forceful, aggressive. But that’s not how it plays here. The problem is not the performance, though it’s less than solid, especially at the start. But Obama is often slow to gather. He starts wobbly, a little distracted, but he often starts that way, a sort of teasing diffidence, before hitting the next level.This is different though. From the opening salvo on the “Forward” thing, he sounds tired, rote: “We’ve come too far to go back now!” Do we feel we’ve come far? That’s not the deal. The feel is we haven’t come far at all, we feel that such gains as have been made were torn from the claws of the beast. Healthcare, the GM bailout, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act … such modest gains, made at such cost, so much skin left behind. Twould be better to put the emphasis elsewhere, to paint the Republicans as nihilists, people lacking civic loyalty, unless it is to their own fantasy America, willing to trash the joint if it doesn’t conform to their childish fantasy of how things should be.

But instead of that, instead of denouncing such politics from a position of strength, we get a whining, plaintive recap of the debate, Obama saying the things about Romney he should have said then: “He just believes what he wants to believe, if he doesn’t want it to be true, he says it’s not true!” No shit Barry! God oh god this is the worst of Obama, the guy who was losing to John McCain in the summer of ’08, when the Republicans were chanting “drill baby drill” (offshore drilling), and mocking Obama for suggesting people inflate their tyres properly. “That could save 20% of fuel costs'” he would say incredulously. “They want to be stupid.”

That guy, that Obama, was saved by the GFC, where he showed cool leadership and consideration, while McCain went off like a mad hen, and people decided they might vote for someone who read a brief before mouthing off. Now the diffident professor is back, and it would take some sort of mutant loyalist indeed to think that this is going well. The first 10 minutes of the speech wanders round without finding form, Obama getting tangled on correcting some obscure Romney point about tax. Then, when it couldn’t get worse, he lunges for Sesame Street.

In the first debate, Romney had played tough by announcing some of the things that he’d cut in the budget, the subsidy for the US’s vanishingly small public broadcasting network, being one of them. “I like Big Bird”, he said launching a thousand jokes. The stab at PBS appears to have been calculated. Though it is irrelevant to many, the defunding of PBS would be a sign to many bookish liberals that the barbarians were here. Will.I.Am had already played the theme to rally the crowd, which only appeared to infantilise it. Now we’re back on it. “He’s getting tough on Big Bird, Elmo’s racing for the border.” It’s a laugh, but it doesn’t feel real. Then we’re onto the “made in America” theme, which has some resonance, and it’s only in the last 10 minutes of the speech that the themes come together, the idea that, just as Ohio is working together now that GM is back in business, America should be working together — and that the crowd and Obama are working together to ensure a fresh victory. “I still believe in you, if you still believe in me.”

So that’s the theme there, but it should have been introduced at the start. There has throughout been a terrible air of amateurishness to the performance, to the whole event — not so much phoned in, as mailed, with insufficient postage. Hours after the rally, the unfolding disaster of the Libyan embassy raid would be playing across all channels, adding to the impression of haplessness, to, dare one say it, a Carterish-era to the whole enterprise. “Keep me in mind  … somewhere down the road you might get lonely?” Shit. Why not just go to straight to Warren Zevon’s Keep Me In Your Heart, ultimate song to self-mourning, auto-elegy?

Will anything come along to give this campaign a second wind, a renewed force? Subject to merely bad luck, or to a deep malaise, a product of the fatal arrogance of American liberalism? On the way out, as the crowd streams through the exits, the now irrelevant security guards looking on, inscrutable. The t-shirt sellers are doing a good trade, the usual stuff — ludicrous pictures of Obama in Rasta colours, Third World kitsch, “relax people, I got this” and other boasts no longer valid. The crowd is being herded to the buses to vote early, but it’s going to take a lot more than this crowd to get over the line in Ohio. Within 10 minutes, people have gone and there’s just play out music, and men on cherry-pickers taking down the “Vote” sign, in the twilight.