Fisher could feel the heat

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The filing deadline for candidates for state and local office was 10 days ago and, up to that point, politicians could put on their best poker faces and hold their cards close to the vest.

But now the cards are on the table, everyone has anted up, and we know, for the most part, what this fall's campaign will look like.

Some races that Ohio political junkies had hoped would turn into monumental affairs seem to have fizzled even before they got started; others are shaping up to be the best examples of trench warfare since World War I.

Here's some of what voters in Ohio can expect over the next eight months:

Most of the expected statewide primary contests didn't materialize, but Ohio Democrats have one to decide on May 5 that could be more interesting than many people think.

Toledo millionaire Bruce Douglas is taking on the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate, former Attorney General Lee Fisher, for the gubernatorial nomination.

Mr. Douglas has never run for office before; the polls show Mr. Fisher leading among Ohio Democrats by nearly 4 to 1.

But Mr. Douglas has assembled something of an Ohio ''dream team'' to run his campaign - campaign consultant Gerald Austin, an acknowledged wizard in Ohio political circles; Jim Ruvolo, former state party chairman; and Dale Butland, a longtime political strategist for Sen. John Glenn.

Like Ross Perot, Mr. Douglas can pay his own way in politics. He will spend an enormous amount of his own money on television advertising.

Already, his campaign aides have begun hammering at Mr. Fisher for endorsing the 1-cent sales tax hike for public schools that will be on the May 5 ballot. They say the Democratic front-runner has jumped in bed with statehouse Republicans to back a $1.1 billion plan in which only half the money will go to schools.

But Mr. Douglas is not running as an anti-tax zealot. His plan would raise the sales tax by 1.5 cents - and put in place a system that would link funding to a school district's ability to show that it has improved student performance.

It is a novel idea, and Mr. Douglas has the resources to make sure that every Ohioan with access to a TV hears about it over the next two months.

Few give Mr. Douglas much of a chance of winning the nomination, but he could end up doing one of two things to Mr. Fisher: bloodying him up for the fall campaign against Republican Bob Taft; or buying the former attorney general the name recognition he needs.

Speaking of TV ads, we can see one coming from the campaign of state Rep. Charleta Tavares, the Democratic candidate for Ohio secretary of state who will face Republican Ken Blackwell this fall.

Back in January, when he was still torturing Mr. Taft by saying he would run for governor and Ohio GOP leaders were trying to talk him into running for secretary of state instead, Mr. Blackwell told a Dayton newspaper that ''the only thing worse than running for secretary of state would be being secretary of state.''

Well, now Mr. Blackwell is the GOP candidate for secretary of state, and the Ohio Democratic Party is faxing bold-type copies of Mr. Blackwell's opinion of that job around the state, along with a notation that Ms. Tavares ''really wants to be secretary of state.''

Rest assured that Mr. Blackwell will be beat over the head with those 16 words from now until November.

The best race that won't happen is in Hamilton County, where Republican county Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. tries to hold on to the job he was appointed to a year ago. Mr. Neyer was unknown even to most Republicans when he took over for Guy Guckenberger last year.

GOP leaders feared that a high-profile, well-funded candidate could take out the political novice. The name they feared the most was Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

But, at the last minute, Ms. Qualls decided she had other fish to fry and announced she would run against U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot. The Democrats' back-up candidate, Jim Tarbell, also took a powder. So the Democrats were left with Marilyn Hyland, who has been part of the watchdog movement in the stadium debate.

Somehow, the Democrats managed to find a candidate who is less well known than Tom Neyer Jr.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388.

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