Sunday, January 16, 2000

Ohio GOP chiefs send mixed signals




BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If you are a Republican voter in Ohio and you look to your party's elected leaders for guidance when it comes to picking a candidate for president, you are going to have your hands full over the next seven weeks.

        You will be getting more free advice than the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate.

        If Gov. Bob Taft and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich are your pinup boys when it comes to Ohio politics, you might be inclined to listen when they tell you that George W. Bush is the pick of the litter among the five GOP candidates who will be on the March 7 Ohio primary ballot.

        If Ohio's senior senator, Mike DeWine, is the apple of your eye, you might want to follow his lead and vote for John McCain, the candidate Mr. DeWine endorsed long before the Arizona Republican streaked ahead in the New Hampshire polls and emerged as the biggest rock in George W.'s shoe.

        And, if Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is your political beau ideal, you might want to consider that the state's chief elections officer is also the national chairman of Steve Forbes' presidential campaign. Like Mr. Blackwell, you can go way out on a limb to support Mr. Forbes — just don't bother sending him a campaign contribution; Mr. Forbes is paying his own way, and his checks won't bounce.

        It could be a confusing set of signals for Ohio Republican voters, who may yet have something to say about who the next Republican presidential nominee will be.

        Ohio's primary — moved up so that it might have more impact on the presidential nominating process — falls on the same date as those of 11 other states, including such mega-states as California and New York.

        Ohio could get buried in that kind of competition, but so far there is every sign that the top tier of candidates from both parties plans to make Ohio more than a place to touch down on the tarmac for a quick press conference on the way to LAX.

        If — and this is a big if — the front-runner George W. Bush stumbles in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina; if he plants his foot in his mouth in one of the GOP debates and can't get it out with a crowbar, Ohio could be an interesting part of the mix on March 7.

        The Republican money in Ohio has flowed mightily to Mr. Bush so far, as it has most places around the country. Most of the party's political establishment is lined up behind the Bush campaign as well, hoping that a Bush presidency will pay off for Ohio in federal appointments and federal dollars.

        But, with significant figures like Mr. Blackwell and Mr. DeWine off the reservation, there is enough dissension in the ranks to make for an interesting situation.

        This primary was supposed to be a chip shot for the Ohio Republican Party establishment. In the first half of last year, an Ohio Republican — House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich — was in what was then a double-figure field of GOP contenders.

        Most Ohio Republican leaders either took a pass and stayed neutral or endorsed, provisionally at least, the favorite son, knowing full well that the odds of him going all the way to the nomination were slim to none.

        The idea among some in the party was that by the time Mr. Kasich dropped out, the field would have been weeded out to the point where there was no question who the nominee would be; and the Ohio political establishment could jump on board, excusing their tardiness on the fact that they had to give lip service support to the home-grown product.

        But Mr. Kasich bowed out ahead of schedule; and the GOP establishment lost its cover. So the scramble to find a candidate began, with most making a beeline for the Bush camp.

        Whether the rank-and-file play follow the leader remains to be seen.

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

       



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