Friday, February 14, 2003

Springer opens door on politics

300 at Miami U. hear TV host

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer


OXFORD - Jerry Springer, the king of tabloid television, gave a speech at Miami University Thursday night.

The subject wasn't "My Brother is My Lover," "You Dress Way Too Young, Grandma" or next Wednesday's episode, "Lesbian Threesomes with Mom."

Rather, it was "All Politics is Global."

For more than an hour, he spoke almost exclusively about the looming war with Iraq, which he compared to "taking a baseball bat to a hornet's nest."

Thursday's speech was his first in Ohio since he suggested in Columbus last month that he may be a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican George Voinovich.

Springer, who flew to Oxford from Chicago Thursday after taping an episode titled, "I'm Kissing My Cousin," wore his trademark black suit and addressed an audience of 300 people in Millett Hall.

Some might find it incongruous for the Ringmaster to be talking about such weighty matters as health care and foreign policy. Truth is, Springer's been talking about them for 35 years. He cut his teeth politically during the antiwar movement of the late 1960s.

"It hasn't much changed. What has changed is that back then we had the draft. Today, it goes by a different name. Terrorism makes us all soldiers."

Though national pundits seem bemused by the prospect of a thoughtful campaign from a man some blame for single-handedly dumbing down America, Cincinnatians know a different Springer.

Gerald N. Springer, a New York native, worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, and led a movement to lower Ohio's voting age to 19. As a law school student, he played guitar in bars in Mount Adams, got elected to City Council, and resigned following an indiscretion involving a motel room and two personal checks.

But voters forgave him. He got re-elected, became mayor, and went on to become an Emmy-winning news anchor known for his groundbreaking commentaries. He started the Springer show in 1991 in Cincinnati, later moving it to Chicago, where it became the raunchy spectacle it is today.

Asked whether voters could now take him seriously, Springer made no apologies for his show.

"It would be so hypocritical for me to say that show is terrible," he said. "I've always said it's stupid. It's just camp. It's chewing gum. It's an hour of escapism. It has no real value."

Though Springer talked openly Thursday about his aspirations for political office - whether it's the Senate in 2004, Cincinnati mayor in 2005 or something beyond that - he shunned any suggestion that Thursday's speech was directly campaign-related.

"Miami is a very Republican school. It's not a bastion of liberalism," he said. "I can give these kind of speeches whether or not I am a candidate. But if I do run, it's to win, because we need 51 seats in the Senate."

Talk of Springer running for the Senate first popped up three weeks ago, when Springer spoke to the winter meeting of the Ohio Democratic Party Chairs Association.

Hamilton County Chairman Tim Burke, who has worked for Springer since he was a student at Xavier University, introduced him.

"You all know Jerry Springer because of his television show," Burke said. "Let me tell you about the Jerry Springer I know. ...

"There was a lot of skepticism, and I could see it in their faces. But when Jerry got up, he took them by storm," he said. "By the end, county chairs were lined up to get him to their counties to do their events. And Jerry's going to try to do every one, because he knows that's what he's got to do if he's going to be serious."

Since then, the "Springer for Senate" story has found legs - even more so than in 2000, when Springer confidants floated the idea he would run against Ohio's other senator, Mike DeWine.

Springer went on CNN's Crossfire Jan. 31 to debate foreign policy with a conservative pundit. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle felt compelled to join in the speculation, saying, "Springer wouldn't be my first choice for Senate. I understand he was a mayor at one point, but I think we can do a lot better than that."

Springer, who turned 59 Thursday, said he owes the success of his show to a never-ending supply of new, young viewers, many of whom watch the show for the first time when they leave their parents' home.

The success of his campaign, he said, would come from the same source: young, lower-to-middle income, disaffected voters.

Springer calls them "NASCAR voters."

"I might even call them the Jesse Ventura voters," Burke said. "It's the disaffected people out there who don't hear politicians speaking to their needs."

A WCPO (Channel 9) poll of 500 Ohio voters by Survey USA found that Springer's strongest support comes from men, young people 18-35, Cincinnatians, and blacks.

Democrats support him more than Republicans, of course, but those who identified themselves as neither Republicans, Democrats nor Independents - but rather "something else" - supported him the most.

The poll is the first measure of Springer's support since the possibility of a 2004 campaign emerged. In it, a recorded announcer asked questions, with answers recorded by touch-tone. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Overall, only 29 percent of those polled said Springer would make a good senator.

Springer said he's surprised the numbers are that high.

"Right now, there's been no campaign. Why would anybody think I'd be a good senator? If all they know about me is my show, I'm surprised it isn't at zero percent."

There's been no direct response from the Voinovich campaign about the prospect of a Springer candidacy, but Republicans are watching with interest.

"We treat every opposing candidate with a great deal of seriousness, and we never underestimate the opposition. Obviously, name recognition and money go a long way toward a successful campaign, and Jerry Springer - love him or hate him - has both," said Ohio Republican Party spokesman Jason Mauk.

"We're looking toward a competitive campaign, but in the end we believe our candidate, Sen. Voinovich, has the upper hand."

"Obviously, it's the name recognition that brings people in initially," said Alison Pryweller, 19, a French and diplomacy major from Indianapolis who helped organize the speech for the Alpha Lambda Delta honor society. "But when they hear what he has to say politically, he has a pretty receptive audience."


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