Governor's race turns on a penny
Sunday, October 11, 1998

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnatgi Enquirer

What is it that Bill Clinton and Lee Fisher, the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, have in common?

No, no, no. It has nothing to do with that. That's Bill's problem, not Lee's.

We are talking about campaign styles.

Mr. Clinton, in his presidential campaigns of 1992 and 1996, discovered a secret that had eluded Democratic presidential candidates for decades -- that a liberal Democrat could sprint to the center of the political spectrum, snatch up every "Republican" issue he could find, and run on them. And win on them.

The Clinton campaign did it in 1992 with its "middle-class tax relief," that somehow never materialized once candidate Clinton had become President Clinton.

They did it again in 1996 with a host of "family" issues that the Republicans, running with a candidate who was asleep at the wheel, never considered important enough to worry about. They were wrong.

Now, Mr. Fisher -- who has never been known as an anti-tax zealot, who has never been seen in the dark of night dumping crates of tea into Lake Erie -- is running for governor as the tax-cutter.

What Mr. Fisher came up with a few weeks ago was a plan that called for the state to pick up a larger share of homeowners' property taxes, a plan that would cut taxes by about $275 million a year.

It was accompanied by a Fisher TV ad in which the candidate, with a slightly goofy grin on his face, pinches a penny and drops it in a piggy bank.

It is such symbolism that passes for public policy discourse. It did make an impression; and, for a while at least, it put the Republican candidate for governor, Bob Taft, in the unpleasant position of denouncing a plan to cut taxes, the one thing that is supposed to make Republicans' hearts go pitter-patter.

The Fisher campaign had stolen a Republican campaign issue in broad daylight, and it worked fine until the Taft campaign responded with an ad that may have succeeded in planting doubts in voters' minds.

Among other things, the Taft campaign accused Mr. Fisher, during his Ohio Senate years, of being the "deciding vote" on the famous 1983 tax increase of then-Gov. Richard Celeste; and said, without offering any evidence, that Mr. Fisher's tax cut was "really a tax trick" and that he really aims to raise your taxes.

The "deciding vote" part was the big whopper. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book: Take a legislative issue that was decided by one vote, and you can call every legislator who voted for it "the deciding vote."

There was some evidence that Mr. Fisher's tax cut plan was starting to close the gap between him and the Republican candidate.

But the Taft ad campaign seemed to have sown some doubts in the minds of voters who don't generally believe politicians in the first place.

So, it seems the Fisher campaign has moved on. The tax-cut plan is still hanging out there, but Mr. Fisher is not talking about it so much.

Instead, he is running ads accusing Mr. Taft, in his previous life as a Hamilton County commissioner, of being part of the tax-and-spend crowd. A Taft response attacking Mr. Fisher's plan to reduce property taxes by $1.1 billion over two years, was ordered off the air Saturday by a Franklin County judge. The governor's race, it seems, is hurtling toward the dark place where close campaigns usually end up.

No more happy ads with the soft piano music; the images of the candidates helping kids with their homework are over.

Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at hwilkinson@enquirer.com

WILKINSON ARCHIVE