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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A battle over union benefits in Ohio has ballooned into an all-out war between organized labor and conservative activists, who view the state contest as a bellwether for President Barack Obama's re-election hopes.
Voters in Ohio decide on Tuesday whether to repeal a law supported by Republican Governor John Kasich limiting bargaining rights for police, firefighters and other state workers.
Polls point to a labor victory that could energize unions and their Democratic allies for Obama's re-election campaign and battles for control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate next year.
"There is going to be a psychological and momentum boost for whichever side wins," said Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University, although he stressed there is still a full year before the 2012 vote.
Republicans want to expand on their big victories in 2010 congressional and state voting, which brought Kasich to power, and weaken big labor, an important source of financial and volunteer support for Democrats.
As of last week, labor groups have raised $30 million for the campaign to repeal the law, four times the $7.5 million the Republican-allied groups have raised to support it, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper reported.
"We feel that every one of these incremental victories helps us defeat Barack Obama next November," David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, whose landmark Supreme Court case last year ended most restrictions on campaign donations by corporations and unions.
"If they lose, it's a lot bigger problem for them than it is (a) victory for us," Bossie said.
Washington-based Citizens United has spent $600,000 to $700,000 nationally this year, of which $101,000 in Ohio, Bossie said.
Republicans say Kasich, who faced an $8 billion budget deficit when he took office, needs to curb union power to reel in spending.
Democrats and labor leaders say Kasich launched a cynical attack on political opponents that will backfire. U.S. union membership has dropped for years, but there is still a core of support, particularly among Democrats and independents.
"I'm sure now they realize that they made a mistake. The question is, do they learn from it? But I think it's definitely going to go down in flames," said Democrat Greg Haas, who has been involved in Ohio campaigns for more than 30 years.
Fifty-one percent of Americans feel labor unions have an important role to play in U.S. workplaces, compared with 43 percent who feel unions have too much power, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted nationally last week.
But the numbers are sharply higher among Democrats and unaffiliated voters, with 66 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of independents feeling unions have a role to play, compared with just 26 percent of Republicans, the poll said.
The stakes are particularly high in Ohio, which both parties see as up for grabs in the presidential race next year. Ohio has picked the winning candidate in every presidential election for more than 50 years. Obama took the state by a 5 percentage point margin in 2008.
"This has shown a lot of working people in Ohio who their friends are," said Mike Gillis, communications director for the AFL-CIO in Ohio.
The issue has already hit Mitt Romney, one of the Republicans vying for the party's nomination to oppose Obama. Romney, whom opponents accuse of "flip-flopping" on issues, declined to endorse Kasich's measure during a recent visit to Ohio. The next day, when he was no longer in the state, he said he supported it "110 percent."
A Quinnipiac University poll late last month showed Ohio voters favoring repeal of Kasich's measure by 57 to 32 percent. They disapproved of Kasich's job performance by a similar 52 to 36 percent margin.
"The governor and his supporters face a very, very uphill battle," Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown said. He said Kasich failed to convince voters he was fighting over the budget, not union rights.
"The governor was never able to make it a conversation about state and local employees need to pay their fair share of retirement and healthcare," he said.
Union members gathered 1.3 million signatures to put the measure to a vote after Kasich signed the law in March, and they have not eased up. The pro-labor "We Are Ohio" group has 35 field offices and 17,000 volunteers, and has far outspent the pro-Kasich groups, The Columbus Dispatch reported.
(This version corrects figure in ninth paragraph)
Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara