updated 8/28/2004 2:31:14 PM ET 2004-08-28T18:31:14

On the eve of the GOP National Convention, Republicans in battleground Ohio are in the midst of a fund-raising scandal and fighting in the ranks that have played out through name calling, anonymous allegations and reports of document thefts.

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The quarrel has entangled the state’s top elected officials and cost two successful political strategists several high-profile clients and thousands of dollars in contracts.

This year there may be particularly high stakes in this in-party dispute in Ohio. With 20 electoral votes, the state is expected to serve up among the tightest and most important presidential contests this fall. A recent statewide poll showed the race between President Bush and Democrat John Kerry as too close to call.

Democrats are watching carefully for GOP missteps caused by the disruption, hopeful that the discord may influence even a small number of undecided voters in this state where Republicans have been in firm control of state politics for more than a decade.

“It’s caused so much friction within their own ranks, it helps us in that regard,” said Jim Ruvolo, chairman of Kerry’s Ohio campaign. “They don’t have 100 percent of their brain on this election.”

Republicans are hoping their intra-party squabble flies under voters’ radar. No Republican has ever become president without winning Ohio. Republican state Sen. Jeff Jacobson says the controversies are a distraction but nothing that will hurt Bush’s re-election chances.

“It’s an old story that when people stay in power for a long time, they stop fighting the other side and start fighting each other,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson should know: He was in line for the top Senate job next year before acknowledging he lied about his use of the two GOP strategists and fund-raisers now under state and federal scrutiny.

The probes began after an anonymous nine-page memo surfaced in March that tied the strategists to House Speaker Larry Householder and an alleged scheme to embezzle campaign funds. The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer said the author was a “high-ranking employee” of a Republican officeholder.

The memo accused Householder and two of his consultants — Brett Buerck and Kyle Sisk — of laundering campaign contributions for personal use. No charges have been filed and Householder, Buerck and Sisk have denied the allegations.

Dropped by other candidates
But that didn’t stop Householder from firing Buerck and Sisk, who also were dropped by several other high-profile GOP candidates after the memo emerged.

Householder, who rose quickly to assume rigid control of the House in 2000, characterized the memo as filled with “nothing but rumors, innuendo, half-truths and outright lies.”

But the political infighting quickly picked up speed, fueled by its impact on potential jockeying for the 2006 governor’s race. A Householder foe, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, is a candidate for that race, as is the state attorney general, an ally of Householder.

In April, an aide of Householder’s acknowledged secretly drafting a strategy to try to destroy the secretary of state’s career. The plan also characterized Gov. Bob Taft, a fellow Republican, as politically weak.

In May, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas to companies that have worked on campaigns for Householder.

In June, Buerck charged that private business documents of his that made it into newspaper stories were stolen from his personal computer hard drive.

The same month, Sisk filed a theft report saying work-related documents had been stolen from his house. Investigations into both reports are continuing.

Buerck said the allegations in the March memo will be disproved.

“I haven’t been charged with any crimes, I do not anticipate being charged with any crimes, I followed the law,” Buerck snapped. “Where’s the scandal?”

Meanwhile, Blackwell, who oversees Ohio’s elections, has issued subpoenas for information from Householder.

“The speaker talks to me through his lawyers,” said Blackwell, the darling of anti-tax conservatives and the state’s highest ranking black elected official.

“We now stand in a Statehouse awash in scandal, a scandal that was born under loose rules and grew under blind eyes,” Blackwell said recently.

Householder calls Blackwell a “Rodney Dangerfield of Ohio politics” trying unsuccessfully to get respect.

The presidential race hasn’t united them so far. The two stood on opposite sides of the room when Ohio’s Bush-Cheney headquarters were opened in March.

In the short-run, Republicans must do everything they can to project an image of unity at the convention next week in New York, said political analyst Tom Wiseman of Bowling Green State University.

“There’s an old saying — ’If you’re being run out of town, make it look like you’re leading the parade,”’ he said.

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