Back to basics with intensified `ground game'

October 11, 2004|By Jules Witcover

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Three weeks before Election Day, as television screens all over Ohio bombard voters with commercials for President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, unprecedented numbers of canvassers are rapping on their front doors seeking their votes.

In what the political professionals call "the ground game," overshadowed in recent years by mass-appeal television, the Bush and Kerry camps are back to retail politics in a big way in the critical fight for Ohio's 20 electoral votes.

Factors past and present have triggered the phenomenon.

The past is 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore's tactical error four years ago of essentially pulling out of Ohio in a premature judgment that the Buckeye State was beyond his reach. Despite pulling television ads off the air in October when polls had George W. Bush leading here by 10 percent or more, Mr. Gore somehow finished within 3.6 percent of the winner. The result persuaded Kerry strategists not to make the same mistake, and they plan to go all-out in Ohio to the very end.

The 2000 margin was a shocker to the Bush managers, who vowed it wouldn't happen again in 2004. A spokesman for the Bush campaign, David Beckwith, says: "It was a bit of a wake-up call for both parties, that Ohio couldn't be taken for granted."

Bob Bennett, the Ohio Republican Party chairman for the last decade, agrees. He says the Gore pullback "tended to lull our organization into a comfort level that was a mistake. If Gore had stayed in, it would have turned up the heat on our people. We're back to grass-roots politics now."

The present development sparking that throwback is the targeting of Ohio by ostensibly independent groups with massive door-to-door registration and voter-turnout efforts in Mr. Kerry's behalf, matched by a huge Republican "ground game" along with expensive television buys.

Central to the Democrats' ability to compete at an unusually high and costly level is the presence in Ohio of new "527" groups. They are named after the campaign finance law provision that enables them to raise and spend unregulated or "soft" money so long as they act independently of the parties and presidential campaigns.

Such groups as America Coming Together (ACT), led by former AFL-CIO political operative Steve Rosenthal, and the Media Fund, which airs TV ads and is headed by former Bill Clinton aide Harold Ickes, have given the Democratic campaign a manpower and money muscle it has lacked in the past. Denny White, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, says ACT and other groups have registered as many as 500,000 new voters. Mr. Bennett says the Republican new registrations should reach 200,000.

Mr. Bennett questions the Democrats' figure, suggesting that many of those registrations are fraudulent or duplicative. But Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, says union volunteers "are coming out of the woodwork" to join the effort.

Veteran Democratic consultant Jerry Austin says, "I have never seen so many people involved in a campaign in the 36 years I've been working in this state." What's more, he says, "I don't know most of these people," an indication of the surge in interest among new voters.

Clearly, the Democrats are in a much better position because of this infusion of aid to take advantage of Ohio's dire economic condition, highlighted by the loss of 270,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing, since Mr. Bush took office.

"If the economy was just a little better," Mr. Bennett insists, "Ohio would be a runaway for the president." He says the election here "won't be as close as last time." But few others are making so bold a prediction. Mr. White says: "The 527s can change the direction not only of the state but of the country. It's old-fashioned Politics 101, back to basics."

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

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