It could all come down to Ohio

Election: Both parties strive to get out the vote amid complex economic and social issues.

Election 2004

October 27, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FINDLAY, Ohio -- Four years ago, the presidential election came down to a single state: Florida. But if one state proves decisive in next week's vote, it could well be Ohio, a bellwether in national elections for more than a century.

"From a historical perspective, you can't escape the fact that out of the last 26 elections, 24 of the candidates who carried Ohio also won the presidency," said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. "We also know that in both the Democratic and Republican playbooks in bold letters it says that no Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without Ohio."

President Bush's top political playmaker, Karl Rove, calls Ohio the most important target, along with Florida, in Tuesday's election. Recent surveys have shown Sen. John Kerry edging ahead in this state, though the contest remains deadlocked within the margin of polling error.

"It does seem to me that Kerry has gained in the last month," said Guido H. Stempel III, director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. "Ohio has lost more jobs, I think, than any other state in the union, and that issue has probably sunk in and is affecting more people here than in other places."

A storm of legal wrangling, prompted by Republican challenges to thousands of newly registered Ohio voters, has led some to forecast that the Buckeye State will replace Florida as the most prominent scene of post-election disputes. But Stempel said the GOP effort has "already started to backfire" because of negative publicity, and he predicted the effort to knock voters off the rolls "won't be very productive" in the end.

Republican attempts to weed out voters who aren't legally qualified to cast ballots are motivated by a widespread fear within the party that the Democratic effort to enlist thousands of new voters could swamp Bush's campaign in this state, politicians in both parties say.

Robert Klaffky, a Republican lobbyist and activist in Columbus, the state capital, said Republicans are right to fear the "massive" and "ubiquitous" Democratic voter-registration operation. He said Bush needs to go into the election with a lead of several points in the Ohio polls to withstand its possible impact.

"This is really a grand experiment for the Democrats," he said, referring to the unprecedented voter drive, financed largely by wealthy donors such as financier George Soros. "This is a really interesting test to see whether it works."

Both sides here are motivated by recent history. In 2000, the cash-strapped campaign of Democratic nominee Al Gore abandoned Ohio six weeks before the election. Bush went on to win the state, but by a surprisingly slender margin of less than four percentage points.

That got the attention of strategists in both parties, so there was never much doubt that Ohio's 8 million voters would be administered an overdose of campaign activity.

More speeches, campaign commercials and glad-handing by the candidates and their representatives might have taken place in this state than any other. When the University of Wisconsin recently ranked the nation's media markets by the number of political ads they've been subjected to, Ohio led with three -- Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus -- of the top 10.

Bush and Kerry, who both plan stops today in northwestern Ohio, have already visited the state a total of 60 times, by one count, and will be back almost every day before Tuesday. This weekend, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to join Bush in his only general-election appearance outside California. Kerry is retaliating with his own celebrities, including rocker Bruce Springsteen.

Such visits help pump up partisan spirits, but the outcome will likely come down to something more prosaic: which campaign does the better job of getting its supporters out to vote.

Some Republican strategists contend Bush could win re-election without Ohio's 20 electoral votes. But his campaign is hardly preparing for defeat.

Largely undetected by Democrats and the news media, Bush has been making progress with social conservative voters, Ohio Republicans say. Privately, a Democratic campaign official acknowledged that Kerry is lagging with some moderate to conservative Ohio voters, such as those in Dayton, home to many conservative Christians and a major Air Force base.

Rove signaled his intention years ago to make a more concerted effort to turn out more religious conservatives for Bush in 2004. Key targets include Catholics around Cleveland and Youngstown, voters with German Catholic roots in the northwest part of the state, Baptists in the Appalachian region near the West Virginia border, and evangelicals everywhere.

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