BY SANDY THEIS
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS -- Republican Bob Taft, heir to one of the greatest names in American politics, was elected Ohio's 66th governor Tuesday. Mr. Taft, whose family's roots are embedded in Cincinnati, defeated Democrat Lee Fisher in the most expensive race for governor in Ohio history and continued his party's dominance of state politics.
Bob Taft rejoices with supporters and his running mate, Maureen O'Connor.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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Mr. Taft will be the first governor from Cincinnati in 24 years and the first Republican governor from the Queen City since Myers Y. Cooper left office in 1931.
Mr. Taft led a Republican sweep of all non-judicial statewide offices, including two Cincinnatians -- Joseph Deters, elected treasurer, and Ken Blackwell, elected secretary of state.
With 93 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Taft had 50 percent of the vote compared with 45 percent for Mr. Fisher. Reform Party nominee John Mitchel had 3 percent, while independent Zanna Feitler, endorsed by the Natural Law Party, had 2 percent.
Mr. Taft's election comes after the two candidates spent more than $20 million to succeed Gov. George Voinovich, elected Tuesday to the U.S. Senate.
"I'm very proud to be part of this tradition, and I want you to know that my only aspiration is to be the very best governor I can possibly be," Mr. Taft told cheering supporters shortly after 11 p.m.
Mr. Taft reiterated his campaign pledges to mend Ohio's public schools, pass a patient-protection plan and cut taxes for college tuition. And he said he will personally lead the charge to bring 10,000 reading tutors to Ohio's schools.
He acknowledged his fellow GOP victors and said they, with Republican legislative leaders, will build on the foundation laid by Mr. Voinovich. Mr. Taft faces a series of thorny problems, from school funding to health care reform. And he will confront critics who said his race was characterized by deceit and indecision.
Still, Tuesday was clearly a night for him to savor. "It's been a long day and what a great day for the Republican ticket," Mr. Taft said. "What a great victory."
While the governor's race was the closest of the five statewide, non-judicial offices, Mr. Taft's supporters said the campaign was confident of victory all night long.
Mr. Taft did well in rural areas and traditional Republican strongholds, such as Hamilton County and Franklin County. Mr. Fisher did well in traditional Democratic areas, such as Cleveland and Toledo.
Joined by his wife, Hope, and daughter, Anna, Mr. Taft thanked his family and friends, and pledged to reward their support with solid leadership.
Mr. Voinovich congratulated Mr. Taft, noting that Ohio had made history by electing a Republican governor to succeed a Republican governor for the first time since 1903.
All levels of the Republican Party hierarchy had a great deal riding on the race. GOP chairman Bob Bennett, who nudged Mr. Taft out of the 1990 governor's race to clear the field for Mr. Voinovich, saw his eight-year plan completed.
Conservatives skeptical of the more moderate Mr. Voinovich now feel as if one of their own will have the top job. Even Republican lawmakers who face the uncertainty of term limits now have a host of new options, everything from a possible seat in the Cabinet to assorted gubernatorial appointments.
For Mr. Taft, 56, history was on the line. He is the great-grandson of William Howard Taft, the nation's 27th president, and his election comes exactly 80 years after his great-grandfather's election as president. He also is the grandson and son of U.S. senators.
Mr. Fisher called Mr. Taft to concede about 10:40 p.m., and he publicly conceded defeat at 11:30.
"To all things, there is a season," Mr. Fisher said. "This may not have been our season to win this election, but it will be our season to build bridges and bring people together."
Joined by his family, supporters and a somber gathering of Democrats, he wished Mr. Taft the best and alluded to the negative tone of the campaign.
"I want him to know that all of us will put anything that may have happened in this race that was less than positive behind us, and we will help this state grow and prosper."
His remarks were interrupted by an unidentified woman who jumped on the stage and screamed, "What are you going to do?" and "I'm disgusted by this movement."
Fisher supporters carried her from the stage, as Mr. Fisher announced "a short intermission to deal with an unusual situation." Gov. Taft is expected to be much like Gov. Voinovich.
Both are detail-oriented government mechanics who preach the need for good management. Both place a heavy emphasis on education. Taft supporters credit the campaign's emphasis on education for his victory.
"The No. 1, top issue this year was education," said Greg Browning, a senior adviser to the Taft campaign. "I think people thought in the end that Bob Taft made sense on education, was solid, believable and trustworthy."
Mr. Taft ran his campaign as if he were the incumbent, hoping voters content with Ohio's prosperity would want to continue on the path paved by Mr. Voinovich.
Rather than offer bold policy initiatives, Mr. Taft's campaign promised to stay the course. Where Mr. Voinovich initiated a state program to build and repair school buildings, Mr. Taft pledged to expand it.
Under Mr. Voinovich, Ohio leads the nation in funding for Head Start. Mr. Taft pledged to continue that and lead a statewide campaign to improve reading.
Despite efforts by Mr. Fisher to draw a contrast between himself and Mr. Taft, many considered the two quite the same. On those occasions when Mr. Fisher latched on to an issue, Mr. Taft soon followed.
For example, when Mr. Fisher announced his Patient's Bill of Rights, which would give patients more clout dealing with their health-maintenance organizations, Mr. Taft soon called for a nearly identical plan.
Despite an intense get-out-the-vote effort, and a last-minute emphasis on populism, Mr. Fisher never convinced enough Democrats that he was the kind of person who would risk his political capital on issues dear to them.
Instead, he risked it on a tax cut, a popular issue but one that opened him to criticism of election-year pandering and cost him the endorsement of some of the state's leading newspapers.
And then there was TV.
Mr. Fisher took a shotgun approach, emphasizing the tax cut one week and managed-care reform the next. Rather than look like a governor, he appeared in denim shirts.
Mr. Taft, meanwhile, looked gubernatorial in his blue suits, white shirts and red ties.
Over the past two weeks, the race tightened after Mr. Taft made history by being the first candidate for governor to be officially reprimanded for lying in a TV commercial.
The Fisher campaign tried to capitalize on the mistake with a hard-hitting TV commercial that urged voters to send this message: "If you lie, you lose."
Undaunted, Mr. Taft fired back, accusing Mr. Fisher of lying and confusing voters in the process.
Julie Irwin and B.G. Gregg contributed to this story.