Dead-even start changes race rules

Sunday, June 7, 1998

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Generally speaking, politicians, despite their reputations, will play by the rules.

They know how the game is played.

Incumbents can be counted on to act like incumbents. They float above the fray, refusing to soil their delicate hands or waste precious breath debating with mere mortals who hold no office but still dare to challenge them.

Challengers, on the other hand, fly close to the ground; they seek confrontation. They want their campaigns to start right now; they will take every opportunity, however small, to puncture their opponents because, they know, it is the only way they will become incumbents.

But, in Ohio's 1st Congressional District, nobody seems to want to play by the rules.

It's been nearly four months since three-term Cincinnati mayor Roxanne Qualls announced she would be the Democratic candidate to run against incumbent Republican Steve Chabot, but we were beginning to think that maybe this campaign would never begin.

Neither side was doing much of anything but raising money, and we had a feeling that maybe this contest would be decided by which candidate had the biggest pile of money by November.

This week, there was no question the battle had been joined. But it started with a little game of role reversal, as if the candidates planned to run a Walk a Mile in My Shoes campaign.

The Chabot campaign (he's the incumbent, remember?) got to the airwaves first with a radio ad touting the Republican's commitment to welfare reform, balancing the budget and cutting taxes.

But the real point of the Chabot ad was to try to goad Ms. Qualls into early debates, five months before the election. The ad stopped just short of issuing a double-dog dare to Ms. Qualls, of accusing her of being a scaredy-cat, a chicken, with a yellow streak down her back bigger than Rhode Island.

Ms. Qualls, in the meantime, went about her business, telling Mr. Chabot that, yes, she would debate him, but not until the fall, presumably when people are paying attention.

In the meantime, she was busy gathering some feel-good publicity, doing a commercial for Fox Sports Ohio promoting their coverage of the Reds-Indians series. She even showed up in the TV booth at Cinergy Field Friday night to banter for a half_inning with announcers George Grande and Chris Welsh, waving her scorecard and oohing over Bret Boone's double to centerfield.

That's what an incumbent does, you see. Make people feel good.

Challengers get red in the face and issue debate challenges.

The Chabot campaign was quick to point out that they were doing radio advertising in early June (something that doesn't happen very often in any campaign) and were challenging the challenger to a debate (something that happens even less often) was an indication that they are worried about this race.

All they wanted to do, the Chabot people said, was to smoke out Ms. Qualls on the issues. She has ducked; she has weaved; she has avoided talking about anything of substance. Voters of the 1st District need to see just how liberal Roxanne Qualls is, and the sooner the better, the Chabot people say.

Then, the theory goes, good ol' rock-solid conservative Steve wins the election.

There is no doubt that the Chabot campaign does, indeed, want to paint Ms. Qualls into a liberal corner she can't get out of.

But there may be another explanation for the role reversal. Sources close to both campaigns say both candidates are looking at internal polling saying this is a race that starts out dead-even, which automatically makes it a high-stakes race and a key to the Democrats' bid to win back control of the House.

Mr. Chabot, who up-ended an incumbent to win the seat four years ago and went through a firestorm to keep it in 1996, should not be dead-even with anyone at this stage; he is, after all, the incumbent.

The only problem is, he's not in a position where he can act like one.

Howard Wilkinson's column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388. E-mail: hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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