By HELEN O'NEILL
AP Special Correspondent
SUNBURY, Ohio (AP) - This is what it's like to be an Ohioan in the maddening final days of Campaign 2012:
A cacophony of screeching voices spew attack ads from television and radio, hurling words like "FALSE! DECEIVING! DISHONEST!," disrupting regular programs for up to 15 minutes at a time. Mountains of political fliers _ glossy sophisticated sheets with invective stamped all over them _ spill from mailboxes. Answering machines are jammed with messages from candidates or their surrogates, annoying some people so much they have turned off their phones until after the election.
Add to that the massive traffic snarls every time a presidential candidate comes to town _ which lately has been every other day _ and it's hard not to feel sympathy for the beleaguered Buckeye voter.
"All this attention doesn't make us feel special," bellowed Greg Schreiber, a 61-year-old retired electrician who meets his fellow electrician buddies at the Sunbury Grill for breakfast once a week. "It makes us mad."
There's a television screen blinking in the back of the eatery. But these days, owner Sarah Arrowsmith keeps it on mute. The relentless onslaught of political ads, she says, are driving her customers _ most of them older, drawn by both the homey atmosphere and the 10 percent senior discount _ crazy.
"One more negative ad and the fists will be flying," Arrowsmith said. "Or at least the dentures."
Sipping coffee at the counter, Hank Wessel chuckled at the irony of it all.
"Most of the time we are considered fly-over country full of country bumpkins who cling to our God and our guns," said the 68-year-old retired physician, wearing a baseball cap stamped "NOPE." "And then every four years we are America's hard-working heartland when everyone is courting our vote."
Even in an era of media saturation, where it can be hard for anybody to get away from any message for even a few hours, Ohio is a very intense place to be right now. The people whose job it is to get messages to you, the voters, are at fever pitch in the days leading up to the election, and nowhere more so than in a state that prides itself on being pivotal to figuring out who will be the next leader of the United States.
With its 18 electoral votes, Ohio is considered "the battleground of battleground states," as Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently called it, which is why both parties are devoting such huge amounts of money, time and energy here. While Florida and Virginia are also critical (and are also being bombarded with media advertisements) no Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio. John F. Kennedy in 1960 was the last Democrat to win without Ohio.
The presidential campaign has already passed the $2 billion mark in fundraising, putting it on track to be the most expensive ever. Material collected by ad trackers showed the two candidates and their support groups have spent or reserved nearly $950 million so far on television commercials.
And much of that money is being poured into Ohio.
"Ohioans are used to very intensive campaigning, but this is a level of sophistication and targeting like nothing we have ever seen," said John Green, who teaches a course in political campaigning at the University of Akron. He attributed it to the vast amounts of money being spent by super PACs, as well as the tightness of the race. At this point, he said, it's all about getting out the vote rather than converting new voters. And, though the saturation might be maddening for many, "it's still pretty exciting if the president or the Republican nominee comes to your little town"
Not everyone feels that way.
"It seems like Obama is on my cellphone every week," says Michael Blaha, a 19-year-old public affairs student at Ohio State University in Columbus as he munched on chicken wings in the student union bar. His friend, 21-year-old biology student Nicole Bishop, called the candidate campus rallies "annoying" (Obama has visited several times) and she complained bitterly about how the political ads were disrupting her time on YouTube and Pandora, the Internet radio site. She's too frustrated to vote, she said.
Outside, on a grassy area called The Oval where both parties have pitched tents and volunteers are offering rides to voting stations, there was a very different reaction from politically active students.
"Most people don't get to see the president in their backyard," said Adeeba Ali, a senior studying early childhood education and clutching a "Gotta Vote" sign. "It's exciting to think that my vote is so significant."