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How to Win Ohio

Start with a Democratic mayor.

11:00 PM, Aug 31, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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THE WEEK the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, had dinner at the White House, his party back home did something that stuck in Mayor McKelvey's craw. It named Jerry Springer Ohio Democrat of the Year for 2004.

Tuesday morning in New York, George McKelvey-a lifelong Democrat attending his first GOP convention-explained to his home state delegates what he did then.

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I endorsed George Bush because I know him," McKelvey told the roomful of Ohio Republicans in a strong, clear voice. The president and the mayor got acquainted when Bush came to Youngstown to promote community health centers and invited the McKelveys to the White House. "George Bush," McKelvey said, "is a good, honest, caring, loving, and-this is what drives the media crazy-God-fearing man." The Ohio delegates offered a healthy burst of applause.

"The same week I went to Washington to have dinner with my friend, the leader of the free world," McKelvey continued, the Ohio Democrats chose to honor "a guy who sponsors transvestite mud-wrestlers" on his TV show (and, McKelvey didn't need to add, is notorious among Ohio politicos for once paying a prostitute with a check while a member of the Cincinnati city council). "I am embarrassed that Jerry Springer is the Number One Democrat in Ohio. Let me state that very clearly to the media."

Just in case the point wasn't entirely crystalline, McKelvey added: "The thought of Jerry Springer and Michael Moore in the White House scares the hell out of me. They're going to be there if John Kerry is elected."

McKelvey's crossover endorsement is a boon to Republicans in a state where every vote counts. George W. Bush's margin of victory there in 2000 was just 3.6 percentage points, and the polls have been neck and neck for much of this race-with very few undecideds. The Ohioans in New York are quick to note that no GOP candidate has ever won the White House without carrying their state.

So they have to do two things between now and November: mobilize loyalists and win over waverers. Everyone agrees that the key issues are the war, the economy, and values.

A supporter like McKelvey is all the greater a prize for Republicans in that he hails from a rustbelt town where party registration is 5-to-1 Democratic and the recovery lags. There's little Bush can do between now and November to spur the economy, so on that front all that can be hoped for from the convention is good rhetoric, especially from the candidate himself.

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Bush must call for less reliance on Middle East oil," says Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, "and free trade that is fair trade. He has to show he'll be tough on China. He has to convey that he's clearly aware that the recovery has been uneven, that there are still parts of the country that require his attention and his strong advocacy."

The same kind of strong message is needed on foreign policy and values as well, Blackwell notes. "If Bush doesn't waffle and maintains his moral clarity, he won't make everybody happy, but people in the final analysis like it when they know where somebody stands." For Ohioans, Blackwell says, Iraq is ultimately "not a peace/war issue but a leadership/character issue."

That leadership/character question shades into the matter of moral compass and willingness to lead on cultural and social issues. And on that, events outside the convention could influence the outcome in Ohio.

Social conservatives have launched a petition drive to place a pro-traditional-marriage state constitutional amendment on the November ballot. A Columbus Dispatch poll released August 30 shows the amendment has majority support in virtually every demographic group in the state-both sexes, all races, every educational level, union and non-union households, and every income level-with only three exceptions: Those who claim no religion oppose the amendment 58 percent to 30 percent (with 12 percent undecided), Jews oppose it 51 percent to 41 percent (with 8 percent undecided), and those under age 25 favor it, but by less than a majority, with 48 percent for and 40 percent against (and 11 percent undecided). Having this issue on the ballot would presumably bring Bush supporters to the polls.

As a result, Democrats have launched an all-out effort to foil the initiative. While petitioners have gathered far more than the necessary 322,899 signatures, legal challenges to the signatures are being brought in courts across the state. Eventually, it will fall to the secretary of state to decide whether to consolidate the challenges in one statewide action.

Blackwell reckons the odds of the amendment's finally appearing on the ballot at 60-40. But it may be October before the matter is resolved. In the meantime, the campaign in Ohio is a top priority for the national party.

On the convention floor in New York, the Ohio delegation has been given the pride of place directly in front of the speakers' podium. And at the Tuesday breakfast for Ohio delegates, the featured speaker after Mayor McKelvey and state treasurer Joseph Deters was a nationally prominent Democrat for Bush-the man who will deliver the keynote address Wednesday night, Georgia senator Zell Miller.

"Let's give a warm Buckeye welcome to the Georgia Bulldog," said Deters as he yielded the floor. Miller effortlessly picked up the down-home values theme right where the Ohioans left off. "I may be dropped from Barbra Streisand's guest list," he said, "but I'm still on Loretta Lynn's."

The Kerry campaign, of course, isn't taking any of this lying down. Within hours of George Bush's acceptance speech, the Democratic candidate will kick off a tour of gritty Ohio towns-Newark, Akron, Steubenville-with a rally in Springfield. Will Ohioans buy it?
"Kerry is a Chablis and Brie sort of fellow," says Blackwell, who grew up in inner city Cincinnati. "Bush is more comfortable with a slab of ribs and a non-alcoholic beer."

Blackwell may have a point. It was hard not to notice that the announcement of Kerry's upcoming Ohio tour carried as its dateline one of the swankiest resorts on the East Coast: Nantucket, Mass. When it comes to hinterland America-places like "Ohio, the Heart of it All," as a state promotional slogan puts it-John Kerry seems to be afflicted with a tin ear.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.