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Published: Sunday, 9/26/2010

Still time for races to gain substance

This year's political campaigns still have five weeks to go, but they already seem to have lasted forever. We might wish for more relevance and less vacuity on the stump. We also might wish we would win the lottery.

The race in the 9th U.S. House district, between 28-year incumbent Dem-ocrat Marcy Kaptur of Toledo and Republican entrepreneur Rich Iott, has turned out to be much more lively than a lot of people expected. If only the tone of the campaign matched its competitiveness.

Instead, both candidates are battling on the periphery of what voters identify as their chief concerns, such as jobs and taxes and economic recovery. In place of substance, we get slogans.

In a TV commercial, the Kaptur campaign accuses Mr. Iott of running Seaway Food Town "straight into the ground, selling it off for millions, closing our neighborhood stores and costing 5,000 people their jobs, their health care, their retirement."

A Blade investigation published last week made clear that's a bum rap: Food Town did well after Mr. Iott succeeded his father as the company's chief executive in 1996. The job losses didn't occur until two to three years after Seaway Food Town merged with Spartan Stores Inc. in 2000, when Mr. Iott no longer was calling the shots.

FactCheck.org, a project of the credible and nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center, analyzed the TV ad separately and concluded it "misrepresents what happened to Food Town and its employees, and who was responsible for it."

At the same time, though, the closure of Food Town stores and Pharm drugstores after Mr. Iott sold the company doesn't bolster his claim of being a job creator. And his campaign attacks on Miss Kaptur have been no more high-minded.

When Mr. Iott isn't mouthing the standard GOP hiss-inducing lines (bulletin: Nancy Pelosi's name does not appear on the 9th District ballot), he is assailing Miss Kaptur's use of budget earmarks to steer federal spending to northwest Ohio.

I've conceded that earmarks make me uncomfortable, especially when their beneficiaries contribute to the campaigns of the lawmakers who provide them. But that's a long way from using earmarks as an excuse for an indiscriminate attack on federal spending, as Mr. Iott is doing.

And his assertion that Miss Kaptur is a rubber stamp for the Obama Administration's "failing agenda ... with little or nothing to show for it" ignores the tangible benefits that her seniority and influence have brought the district. Getting an effective return on the tax dollars we send to Washington is a better idea than continuing to hand those dollars to, say, the richest 2 percent of Americans.

I hope Miss Kaptur and Mr. Iott will find some other things to talk about during their Blade-sponsored debate tomorrow night. Of course, this is just a local race. Surely the statewide campaigns for governor and U.S. senator are more edifying, right?

Not hardly. During their first debate two weeks ago, Gov. Ted Strickland and his Republican challenger, John Kasich, continued to ignore the elephant (so to speak) in the room: the projected $8 billion deficit in next year's state budget.

Mr. Kasich emphatically asserts that taxes in Ohio are too high and need to be cut. He's been far more elusive about the specific steps he would take to balance the budget while economic recovery continues to elude our state.

Governor Strickland has been running far behind Mr. Kasich in the polls, but appears to be catching up. At least he has a four-year record on state budget and tax issues that voters can evaluate. But he isn't much more forthcoming about the unpleasant choices the state will have to make next year.

The other major contest - the Senate race between Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Lee Fisher - seems to have disappeared from the radar screen in this part of the state. Recent polls suggest that Lt. Gov. Fisher is substantially trailing Mr. Portman, a former budget director and trade representative under President George W. Bush.

But that doesn't mean the election is over. History suggests the gap inevitably will narrow by Election Day, as it has in the governor's race. Considering that whoever is elected president in two years likely will have to win Ohio, Democrats can't afford to write this race off.

The gubernatorial and Senate candidates will be in Toledo next week for debates. But if you just can't wait, absentee voting starts in Ohio on Tuesday.

That day, The Blade will begin publishing its recommendations in key contested races and on major ballot issues. This will reignite the perennial controversy over whether the newspaper should make political endorsements.

Many of you don't think we should, especially if we don't support your candidates. Don't try to tell us how to vote, you say - just give us "the facts" and we'll make up our own minds.

But we think that endorsements remain not only a valid but also a vital expression of our editorial voice. We take positions on public issues every day. It seems a logical extension of that role to offer our judgments of the people who would carry out those policies and spend your tax dollars.

We aren't racetrack touts, merely handicapping the races and trying to predict who will win. We try to identify the candidates we think would do the best jobs for the people of this region, state, and country.

We hope to give you something to think about before you go to the polls. But even if you want to use our endorsements as a guide to whom to vote against, as some of you say you do, we won't be offended. What's important is that you vote.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com

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