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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

Can Democrats break GOP's hold on Ohio?

A POLITICAL experiment conducted in Ohio during the last presidential election produced precisely the results calculated. Mix an inflated dose of fear about gay marriage into the latent bigotry of the greater population and stir vigorously. Offer conservative "values" as the only antidote to the hysteria and the moral imperative becomes clear to the conservative choir.

The experiment worked in 2004. Crucial Ohio became born-again as a red state, handing re-election victory to the Bush-Cheney campaign. But two years later faith in the righteous preaching of the GOP from Washington to Columbus has been shaken.

What's been described as a culture of corruption is ensnaring both state and national leaders. It has been a great cross to bear for believers in the one true party. Besides breaking scandals of money and greed implicating controlling players in Congress, there are developing debacles at the White House.

The sordid tales of leaks and lying reach into the Oval Office itself, which is already fending off a steady stream of revelations about what may be the biggest policy blunder ever in Iraq. And despite the best administration spin money can buy, the President's dismal approval ratings have only dropped.

Is Washington mirroring Ohio or is it the other way around? Gov. Bob Taft received national notoriety for his unpopularity, and multi-tiered scandals in a state wholly owned and operated by Republicans have sullied many a political career by association.

From the specter of a governor pleading no contest to charges of failing to report more than 50 golf outings and other gifts, to likewise inept or unethical public servants who allowed money to corrupt their judgment, the dirt is deep.

Washington has its Jack Abramoff. Ohio has Tom Noe. But the story is the same. Insulated, arrogant, invincible politicians lost little sleep over the unscrupulous as long as the campaign contributions kept coming.

The powerful never entertained the downside of their privileged life until deluged with investigations and indictments. They never do until court papers officially notify them the party's over and the fallback strategy is to deny or blame or both.

It rarely succeeds in swaying public opinion about the messy affairs of governance. Proof will come in November.

Or will it? If Ohio is a microcosm of the nation, with its racial diversity, its liberal and conservative bastions, its northern industrial, heartland agricultural, and Appalachia, could it be the defining test case for the midterm elections?

Could Ohio be a harbinger of things to come in 2008? If a state long controlled by one-party rule, and beset by scandal, and led by one of the most unpopular chief executives ever can beat back Democratic challengers, there's hope for the GOP nationally.

If not, Democrats may yet assume control through no distinction of their own. If they can't break the Republicans' 16-year hold on the governor's mansion this year-with all the ammunition at their disposal-they don't deserve a revival. When it comes to squandering golden opportunities, that party never ceases to amaze. Same goes for the striking complacency of voters who go along with the lies of their government.

If they don't use the midterms to register their dismay at the status quo they deserve more of the same. But even voter disgust or Democratic diligence won't deny election victory to Republicans. They'll do that themselves.

More than any outside threat, the GOP will cause its own defeat if it panders to the far right again. The calculated mix of fear, bigotry, and moral rectitude worked two years ago, but today is different.

The public is sick of the graft and greed their leaders have brought to high office. People have had it with failing economies, substandard educational systems, and worthless government diversions to avoid fixing what is broken.

Yet as Ohio holds its primary next week, Republican reliance on the religious right is heavy. Both GOP gubernatorial candidates apparently still believe conservative "values" can trump moderate, practical agendas any time.

But the bizarre intra-party litmus test to determine which GOP candidate is the truest conservative in the most moral sense could backfire. Walking around with a Bible and damning sinners to hell may get the evangelical vote in south/central Ohio, but can it carry the rest of the state?

After what voters have been through with corrupt and incompetent leaders, I'll wager the majority aren't in the mood to take a leap of faith on nebulous "values" by virtue of a political campaign.

The side effects of that experiment were just too severe.



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