GOP sets sights on triple play

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Get your pencils and your scorecards ready, fans. The Republicans are about ready to do a triple switch.

There's little in life that gives Republican politicians more pleasure than to scramble the batting order now and again. They live for vacancies that can be filled so ambitious young GOP stalwarts can move up the ladder without the messy annoyance of things like elections.

But for Ohio Republicans, the frustrating part about this game of musical chairs is that Bill Clinton will control when the music stops.

The central figure in this unfolding drama is Ohio Auditor Jim Petro. The former Cuyahoga County commissioner is up for a 15-year federal appointment as comptroller general, where he would be in charge of the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Fifteen years of job security is an offer no sane politician could refuse; and Mr. Petro is quite sane.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate must submit three names to President Clinton, who makes the appointment. Those names will be Republican, and Petro will almost certainly be among them.

But, if you can imagine it, the process in Washington is going slowly, and the Ohio Republican Party is suffering from some uncertainty about who their candidate for state auditor will be in 1998.

It matters, because state auditor is one of three jobs - governor and secretary of state being the others - that have seats on the state apportionment board, which will draw new legislative district lines after the 2000 census. The party that controls the apportionment board can blow the legislative districts of the opposite party into tiny bits and vaporize opposition legislators.

But if the Petro appointment does happen, it will be up to Ohio's Republican governor, George Voinovich, to appoint a replacement, and two chain reactions could occur:

First, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph T. Deters - who has his own hankerings about living in that gubernatorial house in Bexley some day - could very well end up being appointed state auditor, giving him a leg up for a 1998 statewide campaign.

Secondly, if that happened, poor old Hamilton County would need a prosecutor, now wouldn't it? Lord knows there's a heap o' prosecuting to be done. But never fear - the Hamilton County GOP chairman, Mike Allen, a former cop, judge and deputy to Mr. Deters, would be more than willing to step into the breach and take on the job.

Voila! A triple switch. Even Reds' manager Ray Knight, who can make a bunt sign complicated, never thought of that.

But a lot has to happen before this elephant dance can commence.

First of all, Mr. Voinovich is said to have House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson at the top of his list for state auditor. But, statehouse Republicans say, she is more likely to end up as gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft's running mate; and Mr. Deters has some high-powered Republicans bending the governor's ear on his behalf.

The only other person mentioned as a possible successor to Mr. Petro is Ohio Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell, who seems to be more interested in challenging Mr. Taft for the gubernatorial nomination.

But, these days, all you have to do is mention Mr. Blackwell's name around the governor, who supports Mr. Taft, and the veins on his neck start popping. The only thing that makes him madder is sitting on a tarmac in his state plane waiting for Air Force One to land.

So it is probably a good thing that Mr. Blackwell says he has no interest in the auditor's job, because Mr. Voinovich will appoint a dead cat first.

So look for the triple switch if Mr. Petro goes. It's the only scenario that makes any sense. But, as always with the Republicans, mark your scorecards in pencil.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column appears Sundays.