COLUMBUS, Ohio — Taking the stage to nostalgic chants of "Yes, we can," the best campaigner in the Democratic Party not named Bill Clinton made her 2010 political big-stage debut Sunday night on the Ohio State campus. After Michelle Obama evoked gauzy memories of the 2008 campaign ("Tell me, Ohio, are you as fired up as you were two years ago?"), the president of the United States spoke as well, using twin Teleprompters.
There was little news embedded in the president's words unless you care that Obama offered Ohio State condolences on its stunning Saturday night football defeat against Wisconsin. Or that, according to Ohio State campus police, the crowd was charitably estimated at 35,000. There were the familiar 2010 tropes, like his automotive attack line on the Republicans, "It's as if they drove America's car into the ditch." Once again, Obama warned about the implications of hidden corporate campaign spending because of a recent Supreme Court decision: "This isn't a threat to the Democrats, it's a threat to our democracy."
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But chroniclers of the pageant of democracy that is the down-and-dirty 2010 campaign may be tempted to over-hype the importance of the Obamas' buy-one-get-one-free campus rally. What happens in the Columbus media market tends to stay in the Columbus media market. In Cincinnati, for example, where incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus is facing a daunting re-election campaign, I asked him about the spillover effects of Obama's appearance on his race. It was as if I were inquiring about how a presidential visit to the University of Wisconsin (where Obama held his first Big Ten campus rally last month) might shape Driehaus' campaign. "If Obama came to Cincinnati it would be different," said Driehaus. "But Columbus is 100 miles away. It doesn't matter."
Comments like these reflect the reality that political enthusiasm like an inexpensive country wine does not travel. Greg Schultz, the Ohio director for Organizing for America, the Democratic Party's offshoot from the 2008 Obama campaign, says, "Ohio is such a complicated state in which to campaign, it's so regionalized." This problem is not a reflection of any distaste for Obama or – more important Michelle Obama – among the strands of the Democratic mosaic. "If Michelle Obama comes to Cincinnati and makes a plea about how her husband has been treated, every woman in this city and every woman in the black community would kill themselves with enthusiasm," was the hyperbolic prediction of Alicia Reece, an African-American Democratic state representative from central Cincinnati.
But even in Columbus and surrounding Franklin County, mobilizing the Democratic base remains tricky. Three-term Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman spent Sunday morning making the rounds of four black churches. "In each of the churches, " he said in an interview, "I asked how many of them had voted in 2008. And 99 percent of them raised their hands. Then I asked how many of them had voted early this year. Eighty to eighty-five percent said they had not voted." By the end of his pulpit appearances, in the mayor's telling, almost all of the church-goers were pledging to vote this year. As Coleman put it optimistically, "The president's campaigning here today will light a fire under them."
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Well, maybe. Facing an up-against-the-wall political environment, the Democrats may have no choice but to fantasize about the armies of 2008 miraculously reappearing on the battlefield. As Ohio Democratic strategist Greg Haas explains, "It takes a long time to change people's minds. But it takes only one news story for the alarm bells to go off – and to awake a sleeping giant to turn out to vote."
But in a larger sense, the entire rally at Ohio State was all about Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland's re-election race, in which he trails former GOP Congressman John Kasich by a potentially surmountable single-digit margin in recent polls. Doomed Senate candidate Lee Fisher, the current lieutenant governor, is discussed in hushed funereal tones when Ohio Democrats bother to remember that he is running for the seat held by the retiring George Voinovich. There was, for example, minimal applause when Fisher waved as he mounted the platform as an Obama warm-up speaker.
Columbus-based first-term House Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, who also spoke briefly at the rally, is the only congressional incumbent in a geographic position to benefit from any Obama-fueled increase in turnout. But Kilroy, like Driehaus in Cincinnati, is no longer on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's lifeboat list and she headed into October with one-sixth the available campaign funds of her GOP challenger Steve Stivers.
But Strickland is the centerpiece of Democratic turnout efforts in central Ohio. The reason is obvious: Anyone wonder why Obama has made 11 presidential trips to Ohio, the state where the 2004 election was lost for the Democrats? As Strickland put it bluntly, introducing the president and first lady, "Let's get ready for 2012 by sending Democrats back to Columbus and Washington this year." That is why Obama and Strickland, who enthusiastically backed Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Ohio primary, are locked in such a tight embrace. As Mike Brown, a campaign adviser to the Columbus mayor puts it, "The question is whether we can get 2 percent more turnout for Strickland than in a normal gubernatorial year. That's the Obama piece."
Yet watching the faces in the crowd at the Ohio State rally and listening to the chatter afterward as the largely student audience wandered toward the restaurants and bars on High Street, I had a sense that the Obama piece was still missing in action. But that is not to write off the Democrats' chances, especially those of Strickland, in Ohio. After all, this may be a year in which elections are won by following legendary Buckeye coach Woody Hayes' non-dramatic grind-the-down strategy of "three yards and a cloud of dust."
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