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Ohio again center of political stage
Governor's race drawing spotlight

COLUMBUS - Ohio will be at the center of the national political stage again this fall, as both Democrats and Republicans seek to break old molds and win control of the governor's mansion.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the Democratic nominee, is an ordained minister from Appalachia who is endorsed by the gun lobby. Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who won the GOP nomination Tuesday, is the first black Republican to run for the office and has campaigned with a Bible in his hand and a government-limiting constitutional amendment in his back pocket.

Moderate Republicans leery of Blackwell's stringent stances and liberal Democrats who find some of Strickland's positions too conservative are watching to see which candidate might be for them.

And they'll have plenty of exposure to the candidates before making their choice. Spending estimates already have reached $50 million.

Both candidates have chosen running mates who they hope will help them offset their vulnerable spots with voters.

Blackwell sought out state Rep. Tom Raga, a more moderate Republican who once spoke out against Blackwell's constitutional amendment to limit state spending and prohibit tax hikes without voter approval.

Strickland is running with Lee Fisher, a former state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate from Cleveland, who is both a prolific fundraiser and a favorite of more liberal Democrats.

The vast majority of Ohio registered voters - 77 percent - stayed home for Tuesday's primary, leaving few clues as to how the unconventional matchup will play out.

Some of the lowest turnout was in traditionally Democratic urban counties - including Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lucas and Montgomery - that are seen as pivotal to a gubernatorial win in the fall. All four went to Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in 2004 over Republican George W. Bush, who won the state and, with it, the election.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said he isn't concerned that Strickland will lose black voters concentrated in those areas - but Republicans are clearly giddy at the possibility.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman released a statement shortly after Blackwell won his primary against Attorney General Jim Petro calling the race "historic" and trumpeting "the party of Lincoln."

Redfern called the statement disingenuous, noting that another black Republican - incumbent Treasurer Jennette Bradley - lost her primary Tuesday to a relative unknown, Ashtabula County Auditor Sandra O'Brien.

"I think that Ken Blackwell will probably receive some rolloff from Democrats who want the chance to elect an African-American to the office of governor, but I don't think those votes will have anything to do with policy," he said. "We are proud of the diversity of our party and the key is that Ted Strickland has an agenda that is going to be good for all Ohioans."

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett does not believe his party is tacking to the right amid a state investment scandal, despite the fact that Bradley's defeat was seen by many as a referendum on views on abortion and gay marriage.

"Ken Blackwell will be Ted Strickland's worst nightmare," Bennett said. "I think he will concentrate on fiscal issues, he'll concentrate on jobs, and there will be a nice contrast there for voters."

Despite Mehlman's quick leap into the fray on election night, Bennett said it is the national Democrats who are acting more aggressively to win the seat for Strickland.

"I think they came in and took control, removed the local favorites with the administrative experience - the (Columbus mayor) Mike Colemans and the (senate candidate) Paul Hacketts - and put in their Washington picks in Strickland and (U.S. Rep.) Sherrod Brown."

Blackwell, too, has friends in Washington. In an unusual display of national interest, he has touted endorsements throughout the campaign by the likes of Arizona Sen. John McCain, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his longtime ally and co-author Jack Kemp, anti-tax guru Grover Norquist and other national Republican figures.

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