BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
You want debates?
You want to see some good old-fashioned political head-butting? You want to see the candidates for Ohio governor go toe-to-toe in the arena, lock horns and pummel each other with position statements and back-handed insults until there is only one left standing?
Don't hold your breath.
Oh, there could be Ohio gubernatorial debates all right -- Zanni Feitler takes on John Mitchel for all the marbles.
But the chances of seeing the two major party candidates, Republican Bob Taft and Democrat Lee Fisher, duke it out in a series of debates around the state this fall are crumbling faster than the Bengals' offensive line.
Both campaigns are going through the pretense that debates will happen -- five, maybe six times -- but they are whistling past the graveyard.
A few weeks ago, it appeared there would be some debates.
The campaign of Mr. Taft, Ohio's secretary of state, accepted the Fisher campaign's offer of five gubernatorial debates and even suggested a sixth and another featuring the candidates for lieutenant governor.
Many of Mr. Taft's fellow Republicans couldn't believe that he accepted the Fisher challenge.
First of all, he is ahead in the polls -- by a substantial margin. Secondly, Mr. Taft has a reputation as being rhetorically challenged. As a debater, he would probably rank somewhere between Michael Dukakis and Admiral Stockdale. Like Demosthenes, he may practice his public oratory with his mouth full of marbles, but he forgets to spit them out when called on to deliver the real thing.
On the other hand, Mr. Fisher is a glib fellow, pretty fast on his feet, and he has been chafing at the bit for a chance to take on Mr. Taft head-to-head and turn his often-moribund campaign around.
But Republicans need not fear because the Taft campaign has thrown a curve into the debate discussions that could well mean that Mr. Fisher and Mr. Taft will never appear on the same stage.
The Taft campaign said its candidate would meet Mr. Fisher only if the two minor-party candidates on the ballot were included -- that is, Ms. Feitler of the Natural Law Party, which recommends we all chill out with transcendental meditation, and Mr. Mitchel of the Reform Party, the party founded by Ross Perot.
Mr. Taft held his hand over his heart and made a noble speech about how, as chief elections officer of the state of Ohio, he could not in good conscious exclude two candidates who had qualified for the ballot.
The Fisher campaign was howling mad at the idea; they want their boy to take on Mr. Taft mano-a-mano. They told the Taft campaign that maybe one of the debates could include the immensely obscure minor-party candidates, but what they don't want is a series of debates in which their own strategy of going after Mr. Taft gets lost in a cloud of gas about harmonic convergence and how much the Pentagon spends on toilet seats.
Generally speaking, groups that sponsor such debates stick to the major-party candidates -- the ones who have a chance to win. For example, the League of Women Voters, which has considerable experience in scheduling debates, invites only those candidates who have scored at least 15 percent in independent polling.
Needless to say, the Natural Law and Reform Party candidates haven't done that.
Ms. Feitler and Mr. Mitchel, as you might imagine, consider Mr. Taft a hero of the First Amendment and are ready to carve his visage on Mount Rushmore. They have urged Mr. Fisher to comply with this most reasonable demand on the part of the Taft campaign.
In fact, what the minor-party candidates don't seem to realize is that they have landed smack in the middle of one of the oldest dodges in the Front-runner's Handbook.
It says that if you are the front-runner and the enemy starts shooting, grab the nearest human shield you can find. Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at hwilkinsonenquirer.com
Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.