Taft campaign foul-ups portray comedy of errors
Sunday, October 18, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

We would be willing to bet that, sometime this weekend, there was an emergency confab of the Taft for Governor high command.

We can imagine Bob Taft's campaign brain trust gathering around a conference table in the Broad Street headquarters in Columbus.

All the heavyweights were there: Larry. Moe. Curly. Shemp on the speaker phone. And seltzer bottles and cream pies for everybody.

In the past few weeks, Bob Taft's gubernatorial campaign has turned into a Hal Roach comedy short. In a fortnight, the Taft campaign has managed to turn what seemed like a sure thing into a real, live race, one that is starting to get the attention of Democrats at the national level who now see a glimmer of hope that they might win back the governorship in Ohio.

Friday, the Ohio Elections Commission -- the state body charged with the unpleasant task of policing campaigns -- ruled that a Taft campaign ad lied about Democratic candidate Lee Fisher's record while Ohio attorney and misled voters about Mr. Taft's endorsements from Ohio police organizations.

Given the ceaseless parade of inaccurate and - or misleading TV ads that flood the airwaves in an election year, it is extraordinary to have your campaign ad singled out as being so egregiously unfair as to warrant an official reprimand from the Ohio Elections Commission.

What's worse, all of this came about one week after a Franklin County judge temporarily yanked another Taft ad off the air because it, too, misled voters.

The elections commission decided that the claim that Mr. Fisher, as attorney general, cut the number of crime-fighting employees in his office by 15 percent was not true. A majority of the commission also said that the Taft claim that Ohio's police "have rejected Lee Fisher" was not the case -- Mr. Taft has the Fraternal Order of Police endorsement, but Mr. Fisher has the support of some other Ohio police organizations.

About the same time his campaign was being hammered by the elections commission, some brainiac down at Taft headquarters came up with the idea of sending Mr. Fisher a letter suggesting that the two candidates pledge to do away with "negative" ads for the duration and not mention each other anymore in their commercials.

The Fisher campaign saw that as nothing more than a ploy to divert attention from the misleading ads.

One source in the Taft campaign told The Cincinnati Enquirer that they hadn't counted on him accepting the offer; they figured Mr. Fisher would ignore the challenge and that Mr. Taft could hammer him over the head with it in their coming debates.

Debates. Yes, we almost forgot about the debates. We didn't think they were going to happen, after Mr. Taft insisted that the minor party candidates on the ballot -- Zanna Feitler of the Natural Law Party and John Mitchel of the Reform Party -- be included.

Well, neither Mr. Mitchel nor Ms. Feitler, despite having many interesting things to say, is going to be the next governor of Ohio. On the political food chain, they are multi-celled creatures, but must be viewed through a microscope to detect their presence.

As the underdog, Mr. Fisher, of course, wanted head-to-head debates, since either he or Mr. Taft will be governor. It was widely assumed in Ohio political circles that the Taft demand was a feint to avoid going toe-to-toe with the Democratic candidate.

But, again, the Taft campaign miscalculated. Last week, Mr. Fisher agreed to Mr. Taft's condition, so the debates will include the minor party candidates; and they will happen sometime over the next 16 days, unless some new dodge surfaces.

For Mr. Fisher, it is better than nothing, even though he will have to aim his verbal shots carefully to make it through the Feitler-Mitchel human shield Mr. Taft has thrown up around himself.

Call off the coppers, Fisher, or I let Zanna talk.

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