Council races don't prepare Qualls

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you are a candidate for public office, there are two kinds of election fights you can find yourself in.

The first is the kind of fight Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls has been through six times in the field race for Cincinnati City Council, where a large slate of candidates competes to finish in the top nine.

She has done rather well in that kind of fight. After running and losing twice in the 1980s, she was elected to council in 1991 and, since then, has been the top vote-getter three times in a row.

The only problem is that the city council race - or any field race, for that matter - is something of a pseudo-fight, the kind that happens on a baseball diamond when a batter is plunked with a fastball and the dugouts empty. Usually, the two teams do a lot of pushing and shoving, some potbellied coach grabs the pitcher in a bear hug, and everyone else on the diamond stands around doing their best to look menacing.

No punches are thrown. No blood is drawn. After everyone has had an opportunity to display their tail feathers and show what tough guys they are, everybody sits down and the game goes on.

Council races are like this. Candidates never really engage in debate; they don't have to. It does no good to attack an opponent because, as a council candidate, you don't really have an opponent. All you are trying to do is finish in the top nine.

Nobody gets hurt; it's all good, clean fun.

But this is not the kind of fight Ms. Qualls will find herself in after she announces she will run against U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the Westwood Republican who won the 1st Districtseat four years ago in the GOP's congressional landslide.

This will not be a baseball fight, benign and slightly goofy. This will be a hockey fight. This will be the kind where two scar-faced behemoths pummel each other on the boards, with teeth flying and noses broken.

This will be the kind of fight that Ms. Qualls has never experienced before - a head-to-head contest with a candidate from the opposite party, with an entirely different philosophical bent and the experience of having run the gantlet and emerged still on his feet.

The campaign commercials Ms. Qualls has used in her council campaigns over the years have become legendary. They always had an ethereal air; they created the impression that she floated above the clouds, thinking deep thoughts, while the petty little field mice of politics below labored to do each other in. All she cares about, the message went, is you. She listens to you.

There was little of substance for voters to grab on to, except for the notions that she was for regional cooperation and clean, safe neighborhoods.

It was otherworldly, but it worked.

But Ms. Qualls will not be able to defeat Mr. Chabot by running a Casper the Friendly Ghost campaign.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been schmoozing Ms. Qualls for months to get her into the race, and she is unquestionably the strongest possible candidate the party could run.

But the Chabot camp, surprisingly enough, is eager for a fight with Ms. Qualls. It plans to smoke her out on the difficult issues that routinely dominate congressional elections - issues such as ''partial-birth'' abortion, tax reform and a host of others that separate the left and right in American politics.

The plan is to paint her into a liberal corner, turn her into a tax-and-spend Democrat who is out of touch with the conservative social values of the good people of the 1st District.

She is savvy enough to counter this by running to the center, as did her friend Bill Clinton when the likes of George Bush and Bob Dole tried to do the same to him.

Ms. Qualls may be able to pull it off, but it will not be easy, it will not be pretty, it will not be shot through a soft-focus lens. She had better be prepared to leave some teeth on the ice.

< Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.