Thursday, February 24, 2000

Blackwell joins Bush camp

Forbes' man in Ohio makes a new choice

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Until two weeks ago, one of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's jobs was to do everything he could to undermine George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

        Mr. Blackwell, national chairman of erstwhile Republican candidate Steve Forbes' campaign, frequently showed up on TV talk shows to blast Mr. Bush and criticize the Texas governor for ducking issues. He once described Mr. Bush's education plan as “Clintonlike,” the ultimate put-down in GOP circles.

        Now Mr. Forbes is out of the race. With less than two weeks before the March 7 primary, Mr. Blackwell is mending fences and joining most of Ohio's Republican establishment by shifting his support to Mr. Bush.

        “Anybody can be for you when you're up,” the Cincin nati Republican said Wednesday, a day after Mr. Bush lost primaries to Sen. John McCain in Michigan and Arizona. “It's more meaningful to be there when you're down.”

        It's unclear what, if any, influence Mr. Blackwell's endorsement will have on primary voters. But as one of the most visible African-American conservatives in the country, Mr. Blackwell said he hopes to make Mr. Bush more attractive to “conservatives and disenchanted Democrats who are coming to the Republican option.”

        He also may be looking ahead to his own political future.

        While dismissing speculation that he's interested in returning to Washington to join a potential Bush administration, Mr. Blackwell has made no secret that he plans to run for governor in 2006. Backing Mr. Bush could be a chit he could call in later.

        “You can't stop speculation about my motivation and I wouldn't try to stop it,” he said. “But this is out of conviction and the fundamental belief that George W. Bush is the best candidate for those of us who believe we need a strong Republican base.”

        Curt Steiner, a political consultant working on behalf of Mr. McCain's insurgent campaign in Ohio, shrugged off Mr. Blackwell's support of Mr. Bush.

        “There is a lot more to this than political endorsements,” said Mr. Steiner. “Party stalwarts were 100 percent behind George Bush in Michigan, and yet John McCain won by a decisive margin.”

        As he mulled which candidate to back after Mr. Forbes dropped out of the race Feb. 10, Mr. Blackwell said he concluded that Mr. Bush's propos als on taxes and education are closer to his own than are Mr. McCain's.

        The Texas governor's tax plan doesn't go nearly as far as Mr. Forbes' proposal to scrap the U.S. tax code and replace graduated income taxes with a flat tax. But Mr. Bush is proposing bigger tax cuts than Mr. McCain, who contends his proposal is more fiscally prudent.

        Mr. Blackwell also said Mr. Bush's proposal to expand taxpayer support of vouchers that subsidize kids attending private schools is “more thought out” than a plan offered by Mr. McCain.

        Back in October, a Forbes campaign press release quoted Mr. Blackwell as saying, “George Bush makes Bill Clinton look like a fiscal conservative.”

        On Wednesday, Mr. Blackwell had an answer ready when asked to explain what had changed.

        “I would have been less than an American or less of a Republican if I didn't offer my opinion about his tax plan compared to what I felt was the ideal tax plan,” Mr. Blackwell said. “My history is pretty clear. I haven't run away from shaking trees or upsetting apple carts when I felt that was the right thing to do.”

        Political scientist John Green noted that of Ohio's Republican officeholders, only U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine is backing Mr. McCain.

        “Blackwell was for Forbes for ideological reasons, and now conservatives of all stripes are rallying around Bush,” said Mr. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “I'm sure Blackwell still sees Bush's tax plan as tepid, but in his eyes it's certainly better than McCain's.”


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