The Buckeye battleground

August 09, 2004|By Jules Witcover

ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Of all the 17 or 18 anointed swing states of 2004 - states up for grabs in the presidential election, according to the polls and the collective wisdom of the campaign strategists - none is getting more attention now than Ohio.

Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry campaigned diligently here on their cross-country bus tours, reminding Ohioans that as much as or more than the voters of any other state, they hold the election's outcome in their hands.

It's an argument, to be sure, that simultaneously is being made by both sides to the electorates in all of the other states deemed pivotal in November and close enough to go either way.

The Republicans have no trouble making their case, inasmuch as no presidential nominee of their party has ever won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State. The Democrats can point to the same history to say Ohio is the most easily identifiable key to success for Mr. Kerry.

Candidate George W. Bush carried the state in 2000 by only about 165,000 votes, a margin over Democratic nominee Al Gore of only 3.6 percent. Now, a combination of issues, including high unemployment and a controversial Republican governor, Bob Taft, are buoying Democratic hopes.

Jerry Austin, a longtime Democratic consultant not affiliated with the Kerry campaign, notes that in the final month of the 2000 election, Mr. Gore stopped campaigning in Ohio and pulled all of his TV ads. It was a strategic blunder that may well have cost him the state's 20 electoral votes and the election.

That decision, says Jim Ruvolo, Mr. Kerry's Ohio campaign chairman, will not be replicated this time in a state Bill Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996 and Jimmy Carter won in 1976.

Mr. Austin, noting those three Democratic victories in Ohio with two Southern candidates, suggests Ohio could be one state where the presence of another man from Dixie, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, could be a pivotal factor.

Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Carter ran well in southeastern and south-central Ohio, a rural and farm region of Appalachia where many voters share the cultural characteristics of the poor South. The recent visit of the Democratic ticketmates to Zanesville, in the heart of this region, was a recognition of this history and an invitation for Mr. Edwards to campaign in this corner of the state in the fall.

Making this area particularly critical to both campaigns, Mr. Austin points out, is that TV outlets within its borders are beamed not only to Ohio but also to West Virginia. The latter is also a swing state, and one where Mr. Bush surprised Mr. Gore in 2000, depriving him of five electoral votes that would have made him president.

One other region of the state, the Cleveland-Youngstown area in northeast Ohio that Mr. Gore won but with a diminished Democratic vote, is being targeted by Mr. Austin himself in an ostensibly independent and unaffiliated effort against Mr. Bush.

Mr. Austin says he and an associate, Joe Rusnak, have raised $300,000 toward a goal of $l.4 million for anti-Bush radio ads and direct mail to voters in this area. The effort is designed to flush out a much heavier Democratic vote in this traditional stronghold for the party, hoping to overcome the 2000 drop-off that figured in Mr. Gore's narrow Ohio loss four years ago.

The Bush campaign and Ohio Republicans, however, are not idle in the state, with the president a frequent visitor. Jason Mauk, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, says its grass-roots operation has been significantly upgraded in the face of such independent get-out-the-vote campaigns permitted under new federal regulations.

The state GOP, Mr. Mauk says, went to court to challenge these groups that can use unregulated "soft" campaign money under Section 527 of the law but has been inhibited in also organizing them without appearing hypocritical. He says his party is focusing on suburban, blue-collar counties around the larger cities to which Republican voters have been flocking and is running its best-coordinated campaign ever, linking Mr. Bush with popular Sen. George V. Voinovich as both seek re-election.

It's clear from all of this that by Nov. 2, Ohio will get more than its share of the presidential candidates.

Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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