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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Strickland's challenge

Sixteen years of one-party domination of state government, capped off by scandal, would seem to cry out for new leadership not linked to Columbus or the Ohio Republican Party. U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the Democratic candidate for governor, certainly qualifies on both counts.

But as the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter demonstrated so dramatically in the late 1970s, outsider status only counts for so much if a newcomer is sworn into office one day and the establishment begins eating him for lunch the next.

It's still early in the gubernatorial campaign, of course. As of today, it has exactly a hundred days to run, and most Ohioans won't really begin to pay attention - and take it seriously - until after Labor Day. But it is certainly not too early for Mr. Strickland to ponder the tenuous nature of his big lead in the polls.

A Columbus Dispatch mail-in poll confirmed last weekend what has generally been the case since the May primary - that the veteran congressman from southern Ohio is comfortably ahead of his Republican opponent, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

His lead, in fact, was substantial, 47 percent to Mr. Blackwell's 27 percent. But the poll yields potentially bad news as well: A full 24 percent, one in four respondents, remain undecided in the governor's race.

There's a simple reason for that: Most Ohioans know Mr. Blackwell, but they have no idea who Mr. Strickland is. If he doesn't begin to define himself fairly soon, he can be sure Mr. Blackwell will do it for him, and the undecideds could begin drifting away.

Certainly Mr. Strickland's opponent will be abundantly funded. Presidential adviser Karl Rove will bring President Bush to Columbus this week, hoping to raise $2 million for Mr. Blackwell's campaign.

That means Mr. Strickland can take nothing for granted. He needs to put a little more meat on the bones of his Turn Around Ohio plan. He will need to show that he offers more than the Jimmy Carter formula of good looks and a bit of a southern accent. The traditional Democratic mantra of tax and spend won't impress many Ohioans; neither will blinding allegiance to state employee unions and organized labor.

He is not helped by the fact that his congressional district, Ohio's 6th, is a long, skinny arc that stretches 325 miles, starting at the Mahoning Valley on the north and following the Ohio River all the way down to Scioto County and Lucasville, the town of his birth. There are no major population centers and no strong television presence, so he has virtually no statewide identity.

There's a cliche that goes like this: It's better to be lucky than good. Mr. Strickland needs to be both. So far the good fortune part is holding. He was in the race, then got out, then got back in, without relinquishing his spot as the front runner for his party's nomination. Should he prevail in November, he also will have to come to terms with one of the toughest challenges any politician faces: accepting his own limits. There will be no room for the hubris and sense of royal entitlement that has infected the Republicans who've controlled state government for so long.

Mr. Strickland's lack of administrative experience does not have to doom his service as governor. As an outsider, he'll need a chief of staff who is savvy in the ways that Columbus operates, somebody several cuts above Bob Taft's miscast Brian Hicks - somebody like, say, his running mate for lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher.

Jimmy Carter failed because he couldn't manage the Washington power structure; he allowed it to manage him, which is why we failed to endorse him a second time in 1980 against Ronald Reagan. Ted Strickland needs to explain to Ohioans, over the next 100 days, how he will avoid a similar fate.

He is an ordained minister, a former consulting psychologist, and a veteran of five terms on Capitol Hill. In our view, he is clearly a man of substance. Ohioans are ready to embrace him, but first they must come to the same conclusion.



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