OHIO — Both presidential campaigns spent some of this week crawling across the Buckeye State, at one point campaigning within 25 miles of each other in northern Ohio as the press gave chase.

But amidst the hubbub, two local papers—The Blade of Toledo and The Plain Dealer of Cleveland—scored brief interviews with GOP candidate Mitt Romney. The papers took different approaches to their one-on-ones, with interesting if not groundbreaking results.

The Blade’s Tom Troy led with a commitment from Romney that runs contrary to what President Obama has been saying about his opponent—a pledge from Romney that “high-income taxpayers will not see their tax bills fall” under his plan. At the same time, Romney promised, “under no circumstances whatsoever will there be a tax increase for middle-income Americans.”

Or, as Troy explained a few paragraphs later:

The Romney tax reform plan calls for a 20 percent across-the-board cut in income taxes, but Mr. Romney believes that higher-income earners’ total tax bill would remain about the same because they would lose valuable deductions and exemptions.

“Our plan is we’re reducing the tax rate, and we’re also reducing deductions and exemptions so that revenues to the government remain the same, and so high-income people don’t pay lower taxes. Middle-income people will pay lower taxes because I’m eliminating the tax on interest, dividends and capital gains,” Mr. Romney said.

You might think that a presidential candidate’s priorities on taxes would be clear by this point in the campaign, but as Troy’s article notes, that’s not the case with Romney. Ever since the Tax Policy Center released an analysis in early August saying that a proposal along the lines Romney favors—lowering rates, eliminating deductions, not widening the deficit—would “provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower- income taxpayers,” the Obama campaign has been touting that message, and the Romney camp trying to rebut it.

The problem is that, according to the TPC analysis, “it is not mathematically possible” to change the tax code in the way Romney has called for without making it less progressive—and he’s vowed not to do that. (Some other analyses, like a recent one from the conservative Heritage Foundation, disagree.) So one challenge for reporters is to get Romney on the record about which planks of his tax plan he’s most committed to—and The Blade did that.

Of course, even with that accomplished there are plenty of questions that remain about Romney’s tax agenda. Asked whether a series of major deductions might be eliminated for middle-class households, Troy writes, “Mr. Romney was evasive,” saying that it would depend on the back and forth with Congress.

Then there’s the question of what Romney means by “middle class.” As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein pointed out Monday, Romney has been citing a study that says he can avoid raising taxes on the middle-class, but the study defines people making over $100,000 as “not the ‘middle class’”—a definition that Romney himself doesn’t embrace. Klein sums up the situation this way:

So the study Romney is promoting—the one he says is the study you should be looking at—actually shows even under the most favorable assumptions possible, he’s going to have to raise taxes on the people he defines as the middle class. In saying that that study is credible, he has admitted he can’t make his tax promises add up. And yet he constantly, repeatedly says the opposite.

Just like he did to The Blade—which means that there’s room for the paper to build on its solid interview story with a closer look at Romney’s tax plan in the days and weeks to come.

Meanwhile, The Plain Dealer’s Henry J. Gomez led his interview story with the horse race, which was relegated to the back of The Blade’s coverage. From there, he focused his account on “two hot-button Ohio issues,” coal and the auto industry bailouts, retracing mostly familiar ground on a pair of important topics.

On coal, Gomez cites Romney’s frequent bashing of Obama’s environmental policies on the grounds that they cost jobs, and the by-now almost-as-frequent Democratic retort that as governor of Massachusetts “Romney stood outside a Boston-area coal plant and vowed to ‘not create jobs that kill people.’”

In an interesting nugget, Gomez reports that that footage is now part of an Obama ad airing exclusively in southeastern Ohio, a bit of coal country with swing-state status. He also gives Romney a chance to reply:

Romney stood by his criticisms Wednesday and suggested he would favor some clean-air regulations.

“You have regulations that make sure that coal-fired plants are using the most modern technology,” Romney said when asked how he would balance limiting emissions with preserving coal jobs. “But you don’t put in place regulations that are impossible to meet, such that you drive anyone out of business and you prevent any new plants from being built.”

The auto bailout section of the story mostly has Romney repeating things he’s said many times before. But The Plain Dealer puts his comments in context against both Romney’s infamous 2008 New York Times op-ed and a more recent piece:

Asked if private capital might have been available to the companies, Romney, who has a history in private equity, maintained that he “did not oppose government help to the companies, through the bankruptcy process, to get them back on their feet.” But in a February column for the Detroit News, he called the bailouts an “$85 billion sweetheart deal disguised as a rescue plan.”
In a Wednesday column, PD editorial writer Philip Morris put out a message to both Obama and Romney: “Specifics, gentlemen,” he wrote. “It’s important for Ohio voters to hear specifics from each of you about how you will create jobs, improve education, make our streets safer and give the middle class a brighter future.”

Neither of the candidates really met that challenge this week. But these interview stories, while they reflected the fact that the reporters’ time was limited, did decent jobs of covering complicated topics. With time running out, the hard questions have to be formulated and asked to try to make the candidates open up with more precise information.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.