Sunday, February 06, 2000

Ohio not impossible dream for McCain


Bush aura loses luster after N.H.

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two weeks ago, the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll had the Republican presidential primary situation in Ohio shaking out like this: George W. Bush: 64 percent; John McCain: 19 percent.

        Anyone want to bet that 45 percentage-point spread is still there?

        Call. Write. We'll take all comers.

        One Ohio Republican who most certainly wouldn't take that sucker bet is Dave Ford of Heath, the state coordinator of McCain Patriots, the national organization of military veterans who have been busy ginning up support for their candidate, the former Navy pilot who spent 51/2 years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.

        Chances are, you'd have a hard time getting through to him anyway. Ever since Tuesday, when Mr. McCain stunned the Bush campaign by taking 49 percent in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary — 18 percentage points more than the Texas governor — Mr. Ford's phone has been ringing off the hook and his computer flooded with e-mail from Ohioans who want to contribute time or money to the McCain campaign here.

        Most people hook on to a political campaign because they like something the candidate said or because they think he's a winner. With Mr. Ford, it goes considerably deeper.

        The retired Air Force colonel was one of Mr. McCain's fellow prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton for a full five years; he is a friend and comrade and knows the man inside out.

        Don't ask Dave Ford about issues. Don't talk to him about abortion or taxes or classroom size. He leaves that to politicians.

        “What I know is the man,” Mr. Ford said this week. “And there is no better one.”

        Now, the decidedly nonpolitical Mr. Ford finds himself on the ground floor of what, over the next month, will become a full-fledged McCain operation in Ohio.

        Right now, the war is going on in South Carolina, where the next primary test comes Feb. 19. There, the once-hefty Bush lead has shrunk like a rayon T-shirt, to the point where it now appears to be a dead heat.

        If Mr. McCain pulls out a win in South Carolina and does well later this month in Michigan, it will be a real race on March 7, when Republican voters in Ohio and 11 other states go to the polls.

        Ohio looked like an impossible dream for Mr. McCain or any other GOP contender not named Bush a few weeks ago.

        Nearly all the Ohio Republican Party establishment, from Gov. Bob Taft on down, is lined up behind him; the only high-profile Ohio Republican backing Mr. McCain is U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine.

        The money people in Ohio, the ones who tend the bottomless well of campaign dollars for their favorite Republican candidates, have been solidly behind Mr. Bush.

        But perhaps the most important thing Mr. Bush had going for him was inevitability — a kind of unnatural but deeply held belief by the Republi can establishment that this was the candidate who could not be stopped; he was destined to be the nominee.

        The good people of New Hampshire took care of that idea.

        Now, in South Carolina, Mr. Bush is trying to repair the damage by veering right in that deeply conservative state.

        Mr. Bush will try to paint Mr. McCain as too much of a moderate or even — heaven help us a liberal in order to win there.

        Ohio Republicans are a different breed; they have never really administered ideological litmus tests to their candidates. They are the same bunch who elected George Voinovich, a man not squeamish about raising taxes, and Bob Taft, who doesn't seem too allergic to government as a cure for society's ills.

        Which means, when Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain get to Ohio, the only thing the pair will have to run on is what kind of human beings they are. Which suits people like Mr. Ford just fine.

        E-mail at hwilkinson@enquirer.com

       



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