BY SANDY THEIS and MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS -- The two major candidates for governor insisted schools need more accountability -- not necessarily more money -- and both tried to lay claim to the popular topic of health care reform, during a televised debate Wednesday.
In sharp contrast to the negative tone of the TV ad war between Democrat Lee Fisher and Republican Bob Taft, the debate for the most part was a civil exchange of ideas.
Still, each tried to get the upper hand as the race for governor heads into the final stretch.
Mr. Fisher reminded the audience that he was the first gubernatorial candidate to call for giving patients more clout when dealing with their managed-care companies. "I have taken the lead in this campaign on the issue of a patient bill of rights," Mr. Fisher said.
In both his opening statement and during the questioning, Mr. Fisher mentioned Linda Kerns, a Columbus breast cancer survivor whose insurance company refused to pay for a bone marrow transplant that her doctor said she needed to live.
Mrs. Kerns is appearing in TV commercials on Mr. Fisher's behalf. "I, too, have met Linda Kerns," said Mr. Taft, noting that he attended a fund-raiser to help defray the cost of the transplant. Mr. Taft has called for a nearly identical plan -- he calls his a Patient Protection Plan -- but noted he also proposed tax deductions for the the uninsured.
In addition to the major-party candidates, the debate included Reform Party nominee John Mitchel and Zanna Feitler, a transcendental meditation teacher endorsed by the Natural Law Party.
Ms. Feitler, who charmed the audience during the first gubernatorial debate, stressed the need for preventive medicine. "If you cut down on tomatoes and potatoes in your diet, your health will improve," she said.
Unlike last week's debate -- which was punctuated by sharp exchanges between Mr. Taft and Mr. Fisher -- the top contenders were more civil and less combative.
In response to a question, however, each accused the other of being responsible for the caustic tone of TV ads that have dominated the airwaves in recent weeks.
"We teach our children to tell the truth," said Mr. Fisher, a former Ohio attorney general. "For the first time in Ohio history, the independent, bipartisan watchdog, the Ohio Elections Commission, found one of the candidates here tonight has engaged in outright fraudulent lying."
Mr. Taft, Ohio secretary of state, acknowledged the mistake but accused Mr. Fisher of failing to do the same for an ad critical of Mr. Taft's platform.
The elections commission cleared the Fisher campaign of any wrongdoing in connection with the ad.
The debate comes amid conflicting public opinion polls on the race, although both show Mr. Fisher trailing.
A survey of likely voters by Louis Harris & Associates shows Mr. Taft with a 4-point lead. The Ohio Poll, by the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research, showed Mr. Taft with a 16-point lead.
While some political experts said Mr. Fisher needed a decisive victory in the debate, he said he was pleased by his performance. Both candidates declared victory and said they welcomed the opportunity to take part in a civil discussion of the issues.
Mr. Taft, a former legislator and Hamilton County commissioner, emphasized his years in public life.
"I've learned how to make government work for the people we serve," he said. "I want a state government that helps people help themselves and then gets out of the way."
Mr. Fisher emphasized his working-class roots. "Ohio needs a governor who understands what's important and who is willing to stand up for what's right," he said. Mr. Fisher also used his opening remarks to promote a 15 percent property tax cut for homeowners. Education dominated much of the discourse.
When asked whether they would earmark any budget surplus for schools or for tax relief, all candidates said schools would be first in line.
Mr. Taft said he would spend the money on school buildings, then put any leftover funds in an income tax reduction fund.
Mr. Fisher said school operations should come first, noting that he has proposed a $300 million increase for school buildings -- money that would come from the state's capital budget, not the operating budget.
Candidates also discussed proposals to improve schools, without spending more money.
Mr. Fisher pointed to his plans to improve school safety, remove disruptive students and offer incentives to schools that get parents more involved in their children's education.
Mr. Taft pointed to proposals to improve reading skills, raise the standards for a high school diploma and require schools to have school safety plans.
In one of the most unusual exchanges, the candidates were asked to list their biggest failure and tell what they've learned from it. "Sometimes I think the biggest mistake I made is not continuing with a teaching career," Mr. Taft said.
Mr. Fisher told the audience that he failed to spend enough time with his mother, whom he watched die of cancer 10 years ago. "Sometimes I feel I wasn't as good of a son as I should have been," he said.
The responses drew praise from Ms. Feitler, who used her opening remarks to encourage her viewers to channel their positive energy to whichever candidate they support. "I think the experiment is working," she said.
After the debate, she said she would be supporting Mr. Taft -- if she and Mr. Mitchel were not running. She called him "a caring person."
Mr. Mitchel declined to say which he would support. "They're both the same," he said.