Sunday, February 27, 2000

DeWine has a ball in McCain campaign

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike DeWine's all by himself now on the Straight Talk Express. Not that he minds. It's quite a bus, and quite a ride.

        Ohio's senior senator is the only card-carrying member of the Ohio Republican Party's glitterati to have signed on to John McCain's presidential campaign and, Saturday, he was front and center as McCain's Straight Talk Express bus made its way to Cincinnati.

        Mr. DeWine does not have much more company among his Capitol Hill colleagues; only a handful of senators and congressmen are backing the Arizona senator. Most signed up long ago with what seemed like a safe bet at the time — the candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

        This time last year, most of the Republican Party establishment was giving at least lip-service support to the long-shot candidacy of House Budget chairman John Kasich, the suburban Columbus congressman.

        The Kasich candidacy didn't even last until the Iowa straw poll last summer. Its swan song liberated Ohio GOP politicians such as Gov. Bob Taft and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich to jump on the Bush bandwagon.

        And quite a wagon it was. It had all the money, all the endorsements and looked for all the world like a winner. Mr. Bush seemed the perfect antidote for a Republican Party

        tired of being identified in the public mind with the scowling faces of the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.

        But most people who have bought a new car know the feeling of driving around for the first month or two, sucking in that new car smell and feeling like a million bucks before an uneasy feeling sets in about whether a red bucket-seat sports car was the wisest purchase you could have made.

        Buyer's remorse,it is called.

        The remorse seems to have set in to a considerable extent with Mr. McCain's emergence as a serious challenger and the Bush nomination that seemed inevitable a few months ago has dropped to the probablecategory.

        Not that the Ohio politicians are bailing out of the Bush camp; they're hanging tough. They are even picking up a few converts as the field winnows. Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell's candidate, Steve Forbes, dropped out two weeks ago and Mr. Blackwell, who can't bear to stand on the sidelines when the ball's in play, signed up with the Bush campaign this week.

        But Mr. DeWine has been much more visible in the McCain campaign than any of the other Ohio nabobs have been for Mr. Bush. Saturday, he and the Arizona senator were joined at the hip all day, shaking hands with voters over the kielbasa in Cleveland's West Side Market, on the floor of St. John Arena in Columbus at a town hall meeting, and at the book-signing in Norwood.

        He seems to be having the time of his life.

        He seems, in fact, to be having more fun with this than any campaign since he started running for prosecutor back in Greene County 30 years ago.

        “I've never seen a campaign as exciting as this,” Mr. DeWine said last week. “In most campaigns, you see the same old faces over and over again. But the people who have been calling my office and asking to help work in this campaign are mostly people who have never done a thing in politics before.

        “This,” he said, “is the way politics is supposed to be.”

        But the McCain campaign is still an underdog campaign, one that has an enormous hill to climb — namely, an 11-state primary day on March 7, including Ohio — before the Arizonan can snatch the nomination away from the inevitable one.

        Some Republicans in Ohio are fretting over what will happen to Mr. DeWine if Mr. McCain fails, if Mr. Bush is nominated and elected president. Will our senior senator be left out in the cold, locked out of the decision-making on Capitol Hill because he failed to back the winner?

        Chances are he won't suffer a bit, because, if Mr. Bush wins the nomination, a solid Republican like Mike DeWine is going to campaign for him here this fall, and a Bush administration is probably going to need every Republican vote in Congress it can get.

        In the meantime, Mr. DeWine doesn't seem to be worried about it. He's having too much fun.

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