COLUMBUS, Ohio — "I've never told anybody this. I've never even told my wife this." Ted Strickland — Ohio's Democratic governor whose re-election campaign provides a case study in the politics of hard times — paused and looked down as he apparently wrestled with the limits of candor. Finally, he said, "There was a relatively brief time, some time around the last two weeks in August, when I wondered if winning would be possible."
The Ohio governor, an ordained Methodist minister, was confronting the existential question that gnaws at the souls of many incumbent Democrats in this fear-and-trembling campaign year: Am I irretrievably doomed to fall into the abyss because of the Great Recession?
Strickland, a 69-year-old former congressman elected governor by nearly 1 million votes in 2006, admitted being daunted by late August polls showing him trailing Republican John Kasich by double-digit margins. "But as soon as we started fighting back around Labor Day," the soft-spoken Strickland said, referring to a barrage of attack ads, "I regained my confidence, so to speak. And I haven't really had a concern since then."
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Earlier during our 40-minute conversation Monday afternoon, conducted in a small borrowed room at campaign headquarters, Strickland said, "This will be a close race. There's no doubt about that." But even that article of oft-repeated faith (Diane Feldman, Strickland's pollster, shows the race as essentially even) has been undermined by recent public surveys. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed Kasich with a 51-to-41 percent lead and a Fox News survey put Kasich's edge at a more plausible 6 percentage points, which is about where Ohio Republicans say their own internal surveys portray the contest.
Ted Strickland is the elected Democratic governor of the largest state in the union who is a seeking a second term this year. That is why — perhaps more than any race in the country — the battle in Ohio offers the closest approximation to the challenges that Barack Obama will face in 2012 if he is still saddled with a job-loss economy. Strickland himself alluded to the coming presidential election when he introduced Obama Sunday night at a campaign rally at Ohio State. And Kasich's own commercials ("Under Ted Strickland, Ohio has lost nearly 400,000 jobs"), augmented by a heavy ad buy from the Republican Governors Association, all make it seem as if Strickland has personally signed each of the layoff notices in the state.
Those ads may be working with Republican-leaning independents. Waiting to see Kasich Tuesday afternoon in Bellefontaine (pronounced locally as "Bell-fountain"), I talked with Dave Zellers, a 54-year-old county health officer, who had voted for Strickland in 2006. "Personally, I like Strickland," Zellers said. "He's a good guy. But you can't lose 400,000 or 500,000 jobs without paying a price." As a political reporter, I am chary of drawing sweeping conclusions from voter interviews at candidate rallies. But it is also an occupational hazard that a good quote trumps everything — and Zellers' words capture the dilemma facing the governor.
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For his part, and this sentiment is not entirely self-serving, Strickland believes that the dominant issue in this campaign is the larger economic malaise afflicting Ohio and the nation. "It's the more generalized feelings of anxiety and concern regarding the economic future of people and their families," Strickland said. "I guess from a media point of view by trying to capitalize on that by emphasizing 400,000 jobs being lost is probably smart on [the Republicans] part. But in the end, it won't determine who is the winner in this race."
The Strickland campaign — which some leading Ohio Democrats privately worry is too negative — has been built around portraying Kasich, the former chairman of the House Budget Committee, as out of touch with the plight of middle-class Ohioans. After Congress and a brief flirtation with seeking the 2000 GOP presidential nomination, Kasich went to work in Columbus for (wait for it) Lehman Brothers, the investment banking house whose September 2008 collapse triggered the financial meltdown. Few Democratic campaign consultants could resist the obvious populist attack line that Strickland has been using in his 30-second spots: "Kasich says that his Wall Street experience should make him governor. Haven't we had enough of Wall Street and John Kasich?"
As he tours Ohio's Republican exurban and rural heartland, the still boyish 58-year-old Kasich is playing economic Pied Piper promising (as he did in Bellefontaine), "I think we can have great progress in Ohio within one year. I absolutely believe that we can begin to turn this around." Kasich's predictable elixir of tax cuts (despite a state budget shortfall that could hit $8 billion) and a reduction in government regulation seem to be weak medicine with which to treat the economic forces of global recession.
Neither Kasich nor Strickland win good-government plaudits for their honesty in explaining how they are going to balance Ohio's budget without devastating cuts in state services. Kasich, wearing a windbreaker over an open-necked shirt, went so far as to tell a crowd of about 50 supporters in Bellefontaine, "What you have to understand is that the budget is not the issue. The issue is that we're not creating jobs in this state."
Strickland, whose family lived in a converted chicken coop for part of his hard-scrabble childhood in eastern Ohio, tries to transform the budget debate into another battle with Kasich (the son of a postman) over populist values. During our interview, Strickland said, "I think my obligation is not to present a line-by-line budget. But I think my obligation is to let people know what my values are and what my priorities are."
There are moments when Kasich gives vent to I-read-the-polls self-confidence. In Bellefontaine (northwest of Columbus for those who care about Ohio geography), Kasich blurted out, "I'm on the verge of being the governor."
Yet I remain tempted to resist a headlong rush to judgment in Ohio, even with Kasich consistently leading in the polls with less than two weeks until the election. As Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State, puts it, "If you can couple a slight under-representation of the Democratic vote in the polls with the Democrats presumed greater ability to mobilize voters, then you may have a gubernatorial election that's a tossup."
Granted, it takes a lot of if-clauses to get Ted Strickland to toss-up status. But I also have been spending election-year Octobers in Ohio since the late 1990s — and I have never heard prominent Democrats in off-the-record conversations sound so baffled by the horse race surveys. It is almost as if they are asking — to repurpose an old joke — "Do you believe the polls or your own eyes?"
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