By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A poll out Monday showing Gov. Bob Taft's popularity nose-diving to depths not seen among Ohio leaders in 20 years will reverberate in Columbus and in Washington.
According to the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, only 40 percent of Ohioans approve of Taft's performance, an extraordinary plunge for a governor who won re-election last November in a landslide.
It's the worst rating for a governor since Richard Celeste in 1983, and the highest disapproval rating - 48 percent - since the poll began in 1983.
"We don't need a poll to tell us Ohioans are opposed to tax increases and cuts in services," said Taft's spokesman, Orest Holubec. The state's fiscal crisis has forced the governor to push both unpopular options.
In September, 66 percent of those surveyed told the Ohio Poll said they approved of Taft's job performance.
State Democratic Chairman Dennis White said the numbers show Ohioans have lost confidence in their governor and are angry about the state's finances. That could hurt Republicans at all levels in 2004, including President Bush, who needs to win Ohio.
"You've had the voters in Ohio filled with lies for the last two years," White said. "I think they'll take it out on all the Republicans."
In Columbus, the numbers may mean Taft will have a tougher time persuading legislators to fix the state's budget crisis the way he wants it fixed. He failed to persuade the Legislature, controlled by his own party, to raise cigarette and alcohol taxes. As a result, this week he will make cuts to schools, colleges and a health-care program for seniors.
The governor also is trying to balance the fiscal 2004 and 2005 budgets by extending sales taxes to more services and raising the gasoline tax.
"In the short run, numbers like this make it very difficult for him to sit down with the Legislature and get his way," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics in Akron.
Taft's budget proposals were the major reason Ohioans cited for disapproval. While 17 percent were against raising taxes, only 5 percent were against his spending cuts.
"Tax increases were more on the minds of people than budget cuts themselves," said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll. The poll is based on interviews with 843 adults Feb. 7 to 23. Its margin of error is 3.4 percentage points.
State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr., a conservative Republican from Cincinnati who has fought Taft on the tax increases, said the poll confirms Ohioans are anti-tax.
"The public perception is when you have a tight budget, just as when you have a tight family budget or tight business budget, you cut, you trim, you do away with nonessential priorities," he said. "You set priorities. That is the responsible track to go on."
In Washington, the poll results add to White House anxiety about winning Ohio in 2004. No Republican has won the White House in the past century without winning Ohio.
After a ceremony last week honoring the Ohio State football team, the state's top Republicans, including Taft, huddled for 45 minutes with Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove, and Bush political director Ken Mehlman.
"They believe it's going to be an election like 2000, not 1984," Taft told reporters, meaning another nail-biter rather than a Ronald Reagan-style romp over Democrat Walter Mondale. "They think Ohio is going to be a key battleground state."
Bush's support has been falling, too, partly because of the economy and partly on the possibility of war with Iraq. The president, who enjoyed poll approval ratings in the 60 percent and 70 percent range throughout 2002, has fallen to the 50s in many recent polls, including 54 percent in a Feb. 12-18 survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. That was Pew's lowest rating for Bush since he registered 51 percent the week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Though Bush won Ohio in 2000, he did not do as well as he had hoped, Taft said. In 2004, the White House most fears a Democrat who doesn't share what Taft described as Al Gore's stands against guns and for "excessive environmental regulation."
Taft said his personal popularity, or lack of it, did not come up at the meeting.
But Chris Finney, vice chairman of the Cincinnati-based Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, said Taft and Bush's plunging poll numbers come from the same force: disgust with both men's fiscal irresponsibility.
Taxpayers can't afford to pay for the spending increases Taft has pushed through in recent years, Finney said, nor can they afford Bush's tax cut coupled with increases in federal spending.
"It's embarrassing," said Finney, a Republican. "President Bush and Governor Taft have left us politically vulnerable on our best issue: fiscal responsibility."
That could cost Republicans at the polls in 2004, both in Ohio and nationally, he said. He noted that Michigan's new Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, has promised to fix a $1 billion deficit without raising taxes.
Even Rove acknowledged the problem in a January meeting with reporters. He said creation of a vast new Department of Homeland Security likely will cause conservatives "indigestion."
"Anytime you grow the government, it causes conservative qualms," he said.
Conservatives like Brinkman called Bush and Taft "fellow travelers," saying they were both trying to increase spending rather than making the tough decisions about what to cut.
But Rademacher said the poll probably says nothing about Bush's chances for re-election: "The time between now and 2004 is an eternity in politics."
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