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Published: Saturday, 10/9/2010

Tighter races test candidates, help voters

AS SOON as I walked into the auditorium for Thursday night's gubernatorial debate, the security person demanded to know: Would I sit in Ted Strickland's cheering section, or John Kasich's? No neutral zone.

I ended up sitting among Mr. Kasich's posse. Don't read anything into that. I just wanted to make sure I didn't get stuck behind the big blue curtain that separated the two camps.

But why, I wondered, had I been forced to answer a tough question when the candidates wouldn't be? That turned out to be a bad assumption: The second — and last — debate between Governor Strickland and Mr. Kasich, on the University of Toledo campus, was a lot more informative than the first one. Everyone who watched it got a clear idea of the choice in this election.

That outcome reflects the close and volatile nature of this campaign. No matter which candidate you favor, a real race rather than a premature victory lap can only benefit voters.

Just weeks ago, polls suggested Mr. Kasich, the Republican challenger, might have built an insurmountable lead over Mr. Strickland, the Democratic incumbent. In Ohio's U.S. Senate race, if you believed the numbers, Democrat Lee Fisher was no longer even in the same area code as his GOP opponent, Rob Portman.

Now, barely three weeks before Election Day, both races seem to have tightened. You can find polls that favor either candidate for governor. And while Mr. Fisher continues to trail Mr. Portman, he appears to have made up some ground.

If these developments require all of the candidates to continue to hone their messages, confront rather than duck key issues, and defend their records right to the end, so much the better.

Before last week's debate, Mr. Kasich didn't seem particularly concerned about the apparent shrinking of his lead. He observed, accurately, that polls are no more than snapshots in time. He noted that when he began his campaign, polls pegged him as a 30-point underdog.

And he said he never believed he was as far ahead of Governor Strickland among likely voters as a poll last month by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut suggested.

“When I heard they had me up by 17 points, I burst out laughing,” Mr. Kasich told me. “Was John Kasich going to be elected governor by 17 points? Come on.”

Ohio's bum economy continues to frame the debate in both major races, as it should. In the final days of the campaign, the candidates have an opportunity — and an obligation — to go beyond talking points and stump slogans and talk candidly to voters about their concerns.

Voters could ask Mr. Kasich how he reconciles his pledge not to raise taxes — and even to pursue elimination of the state personal income tax — with projections of a budget deficit of as much as $8 billion next year. He has largely eluded that question so far, but it still needs to be raised.

They could ask Gov. Strickland to elaborate on his comments, in response to a recent Blade series that chronicled widespread plant closings and job losses in northwest Ohio, that his Department of Development might have done better at persuading some employers not to flee the state.

This might be wishful thinking. As Mr. Strickland observed in last week's debate: “It's really not important what the newspapers say about us.” But it is important that voters have the opportunity to make their choices based on facts rather than atmospherics.

In the Senate race, Mr. Fisher conceded last week that he remains “definitely the underdog.”

“The wind's in my face,” he said during a visit to The Blade. “If people are supporting Rob Portman only because they think he'll win, then it'll be hard for me to win. But I have a track record of coming from behind.”

I'd hope that both Senate candidates would blame each other less for the jobs Ohio already has lost — we've heard plenty of that — and engage each other more on what our state must do to create jobs. That's started to happen, but a genuinely competitive campaign might encourage more of the discussion.

There's a wild card this year: early voting, which in Ohio has turned Election Day into Election Five Weeks. State election officials predict that one-third of this year's ballots will be cast before Nov. 2.

Early voting, either by absentee ballot or at a polling place, is a useful tool to enhance turnout. That's desirable. But it also can deny voters who opt for it the opportunity to watch the final, most important stages of campaigns develop.

If a candidate acquits himself or herself especially well in debates, makes a critical last-minute gaffe, launches an especially contemptible smear, or offers some other October surprise, an early vote often can't reflect that. And if early voters look for familiar names on the ballot, that can give incumbents an undeserved advantage.

Does early voting truly need to last 35 days here? Wouldn't, say, 21 or even 14 days get the job done just as well?

But that's a debate for another time. For now, let's pay attention to — and enjoy — the rest of the campaign.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.



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