GOP seeks to shore up key bases in Ohio ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

October 05, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's a source of pride to Ohio Republicans that no member of their party has ever won the presidency without carrying their state. That record goes back 132 years, to the election of the first GOP president, Abraham Lincoln.

That pre-eminent political strategist, Richard Nixon, counseled candidate George Bush in 1988 to focus his heaviest resources on Ohio as the one state that could guarantee his victory. Nixon had reason to know, however, that Ohio was never enough. He beat John F. Kennedy by 273,000 votes here in 1960 and still lost the election.

Nevertheless, Ohio is almost always a key to Republican fortunes, and this year is seen by the Bush campaign as no exception. That's why the fact that Bush, who carried the state handily (by 11 percent) in 1988 over Michael Dukakis, is trailing Bill Clinton in the polls is read as a particular distress signal for his re-election campaign.

The route of Bush's recent train tour from Columbus into southern Michigan -- through northwest Ohio, among the most Republican areas of the state -- is viewed as a gauge of how much work Bush has ahead with less than five weeks to go to the election. Traditionally, the Republican ticket would have this area of farms and smaller towns sewed up by now. Instead, GOP campaign planners brought him through in an effort to shore up the base.

Earlier trips by the president have similarly gone to Republican areas, leading the Democratic state chairman, Gene Branstool, to chide the opposition for playing "safe haven politics." Doug Preisse, the Bush state coordinator, says "it's a legitimate, time-honored tactic that you shore up your base." But in late September, when your candidate by your own acknowledgment is trailing by seven or eight points?

Ohio newspaper polls paint a more bleak picture. The prestigious Akron Beacon Journal survey published Sept. 20 had Clinton ahead 43 percent to 35 percent, and with undecided voters indicating how they were leaning the margin went up to 50 percent to 40 percent. A Columbus Dispatch poll in early September also gave Clinton a 10-point lead and had him running ahead in every section of the state except central and southwest Ohio, two other traditional Republican strongholds.

Statewide Republican candidates always look to the Columbus and Cincinnati areas to make up for expected losses in the Canton-Akron-Youngstown industrial belt in the state's northeastern corner. The rule of thumb, says Preisse, is that a Republican "can't lose Cuyahoga County [Cleveland] by more than 100,000 votes and win the state." But Bush did it in 1988, he notes, by making up the deficit in the traditional Republican areas, "and we expect that will happen again."

Even in the heavily Eastern European ethnic communities in that industrial belt, Preisse suggests, "my gut tells me" that grateful voters, reminded of Bush's longtime support for the so-called captive nations, will reward him at the polls on Election Day, thus keeping down the Democratic margin in that part of the state.

With unemployment up nearly 2 percent since Bush took office, however, the Bush campaign here as elsewhere is struggling to find a winning message off the subject of the economy. It was reduced the other day to the stunt of holding a press conference with 14 blindfolded "hostages" each representing a different piece of domestic legislation the campaign said was being held hostage by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

And while Democratic candidates at the local level are falling all over themselves to be identified with the Clinton-Gore ticket here, Republicans are running scared. Lt. Gov. Michael DeWine, running for Sen. John Glenn's seat, is striving to sell himself as an agent of change -- on the same ticket as the incumbent president. Glenn, after 18 years in office, leads in the most recent University of Cincinnati poll by a whopping 55 percent to 33 percent in what is supposed to be an anti-incumbent year.

Bush, like all Republican presidential candidates of the past, probably needs Ohio to be elected. And right now, with Republicans constituting no more than one-third of the state vote, he probably needs to go beyond the GOP base he has been shoring up to do it.

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