Sunday, March 12, 2000

Taft's rep burnished by Bush win




BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bob Taft, Kingmaker. All right, maybe that's a little bit of a stretch. George W. Bush was already at least a princebefore he won the Ohio GOP primary Tuesday. After all, the Texas governor has a father who was president; the Ohio governor has to go all the way back to his great-grandfather to find one.

        But we would not begrudge Mr. Taft the right to yank his humerus bone out of its socket patting himself on the back for Mr. Bush's substantial win over Arizona Sen. John McCain.

        Mr. Taft had more than a little to do with it, and we suspect Mr. Bush is the type who keeps score of such things.

        Ohio's governor played the Smokey the Bear role in all of this: he put out the fire.A few weeks ago, it seemed like the McCain campaign had flicked a burning butt out the window of the Straight Talk Express into the bone-dry grass and started a conflagration that looked impossible to snuff out.

        McCain volunteers were coming out of the woodwork, via the campaign's old-fashioned “phone trees” and high-tech Web site, and the candidate himself drew large, en thusiastic crowds late last month in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

        But ol' Smokey was on the job.

        Mr. Taft threw his not-inconsiderable political machine into place, cutting loose political director Bob Paduchik to run the Bush campaign in Ohio and using every get-out-the-vote gimmick the Ohio GOP has in its arsenal.

        The people who run the national Bush campaign down in Austin had the good sense to stand aside and let the locals run the show.

        There were good, practical political reasons for Mr. Taft to spend his political capital on his fellow governor's behalf, in addition to the fact that he would like to see Mr. Bush elected president.

        For one thing, he was bound and determined not to wind up looking like his brother to the north, Michigan Gov. John Engler.

        Last month, in the weeks leading up to Michigan's GOP presidential primary, Mr. Engler — apparently harboring delusions that there might be a Bush-Engler ticket after this summer's GOP convention — huffed and puffed and vowed to kick Mr. McCain's behind from Ypsilanti to the Upper Peninsula.

        Mr. Engler promised more than he could deliver, especially after some mischief-making Democrats in the state organized a campaign to persuade Michigan Democratic voters — who had no primary to vote in that day — to jump over into the Republican primary and vote for Mr. McCain, just to mess with the governor's mind and make him look like a world-class boob on Election Day.

        Well, it worked. Mr. McCain won the Michigan primary, Mr. Bush was forced to fight on, and Mr. Engler is still scraping the egg off his face.

        Bob Taft wasn't going to let that happen here.

        The Ohio governor had one advantage going in — the fact that Ohio Democrats had their own primary to vote in and weren't nearly mad enough at the first-term Republican governor to stage some kind of mass exodus to the GOP primary, just to mess things up.

        All Mr. Taft had to worry about was independents turning up in large enough numbers to offset the hard-core Republican primary voters in Ohio, whom the polls said favored Mr. Bush overwhelmingly.

        Mr. Taft's task was to cool the burners a bit, diminish expectations instead of elevating them, while quietly working on getting hard-core Republican primary voters to the polls.

        It worked, thanks in part to some pretty sophisticated phone bank operations and a wild airborne scramble around the state in the last two days of the campaign, where Mr. Taft popped up in places like the Tower Place food court to plead with voters personally and get his mug on the local TV news.

        In other words, the governor took nothing for granted. Nobody was going to make a John Engler out of him.

        E-mail Howard Wilkinson at hwilkinson@enquirer.com.

       



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