Sunday, November 05, 2000

Push for Bush relaxes in Ohio

By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau

        COLUMBUS — When Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson casually mentioned to a few George W. Bush volunteers this week that she still had yard signs in the trunk of her car, she thought a riot might erupt.

        It seemed that just about everybody wanted those Bush-Cheney signs.

        “I thought I'd need protection to go out to the parking lot,” Ms. Davidson said, grinning. “That tells you a lot.”

        Forgive Ms. Davidson and other leading Ohio Republicans for feeling a bit smug about Mr. Bush's chances in Ohio as they head into Tuesday.

        After all, Mr. Gore hasn't even bothered to visit Ohio in a month. His campaign cut its advertising budget in the state last last week by two-thirds. Polls put Mr. Bush ahead in Ohio by 6 to 8 percentage points.

        The expectation that Ohio would be a sizzling, duke-'em-out battleground state right up to Election Day has fizzled. And political strategists and others say that un less Democrats succeed in turning out record numbers of voters — which isn't likely — the battle is over in Ohio and Mr. Bush will win the state Tuesday.

        “His mild conservatism and simple message — my opponent trusts government and I trust you — is consistent with the politics of Ohio,” said Robert Adams, associate political science professor at Wright State University.

        Mr. Adams said the Gore message has been too complicated and the vice president was hurt by his attempts to constantly reinvent himself.

        “The fact that people see Mr. Bush as more of a lightweight who is not as experienced doesn't matter,” he said. “He's likable and good at campaigning, and that has been key.”

        Political operatives in the

        state also note that while Cleveland is a major Democratic stronghold, much of the rest of the state leans Republican. In Ohio, the governorship, all statewide offices and the Ohio House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.

        “Certainly, the Republican machine in Ohio is well-oiled and organized. I think it's very helpful that the governor and both U.S. senators and the whole state ticket is Republican,” said Curt Steiner, a Republican consultant and Columbus power broker.

        “Even at the low ebb of the Bush campaign this fall, the Texas governor was still ahead in Ohio,” he said. “And at no time has Mr. Gore been in a commanding position in this state.”

        Still, while Republicans and political strategists say Ohio is now a “write-off” for Mr. Gore, Democrats are far from giving up. Without the flag-waving rallies or million-dollar TV buys, the fight in Ohio over the next two days will be waged on the ground. Democrats contend that's where they have an advantage.

        They say union members and other Democrats across Ohio are calling hundreds of thousands of Ohioans to urge them to vote. They are also making massive literature distributions and doing everything they can think of to persuade their backers to get to the polls.

        “Ohio is still a tossup,” said Derrick Clay, director of the Gore campaign in Ohio. “The ultimate poll is going to be on Election Day.”

        Bob Paduchik, executive director of the Ohio Bush campaign, agrees that the key in Ohio now is which side can get more voters to the polls. But he thinks that job is easier for Republicans this year because they are more enthusiastic about Mr. Bush than Democrats are about Mr. Gore.

        He said support for Mr. Bush surged in Ohio after the Texas governor's performance in the debates. “I've done politics for 14 years, and rarely have I seen this type for excitement for a campaign,” Mr. Paduchik said.

        He added that Republicans have their own strong grass-roots efforts in operation, including phone banks, literature distribution and the placement of 65,000 yard signs.

        Noting that President Clinton won Ohio the last two elections, Mr. Paduchik said he is taking nothing for granted in Ohio. But, he said, “We're feeling good.”

        Such confidence is well-placed, according to Mr. Adams. He predicted that not even Thursday's revelations that Mr. Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1976 will hurt him in Ohio.

        “Ideally, he should have come clean about it earlier; it was dumb not to do that,” Mr. Adams said. “But I don't see him suffering too much damage.”

        Herb Asher, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, said both campaigns have shown they think Ohio is no longer in play through their focus on states where the race is expected to be tighter — Florida, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

        “Ohio was hotly contested but now it appears other states are more of a priority,” Mr. Asher said.

        Still, he said, people should vote Tuesday because it can make a difference.

        “Perhaps after the election we'll find out the unions and the get-out-the-vote activities in the central cities, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, were successful,” he said. “If so, it could be that Ohio is a very close state after all.”


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