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Published: Sunday, 8/20/2000

Ohio's Democrats energized; Gore's speech charts party direction in crucial states

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

LOS ANGELES - After four days of politicking, basking in sunshine, and fighting L.A. freeway traffic at their party's national convention, Ohio Democrats returned home this weekend with a fresh enthusiasm for Vice President Gore, who blended populist and middle-of-the road themes in his acceptance speech.

"He showed a passion about his commitment to fight for the American people," said Alan Melamed, a Cleveland politico who backed Bill Bradley in the Ohio primary. "The Republicans and George W. Bush are not going to be able to make this a race against Bill Clinton."

Political experts said if Mr. Gore sticks to the themes he outlined Thursday night, the race likely will be close, which will make the battle for Ohio's electoral votes even more intense.

"After a dismal liberal convention, Gore put himself squarely back in the race with that excellent speech," said Dick Morris, who was Bill Clinton's political guru in the 1996 presidential race.

Although Mr. Gore's acceptance speech fired them up, several Democratic delegates said they believe the contest between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush will be won in their debates this fall and in who campaigns best in battleground states including Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

"I think this notion that one speech being the whole campaign is media hype," said state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, a Cleveland Democrat. "It's really about clear differences on a couple of issues: a prescription drug benefit in Medicare and gun safety."

Jim Ruvolo, head of the Gore campaign in Ohio, added: "Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush has a lock on the American people. Bill Clinton does. The public is not engaged about this election. Part of that is prosperity and the fact both candidates wrapped up their nominations so early.

"But after Labor Day, after the kids are back in school, and the debates are held, more people will be paying attention," said Mr. Ruvolo, an Ottawa Hills resident who is a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman.

Mr. Gore's acceptance speech is a roadmap for how he will run in Ohio, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. Mr. Gore, who helped move his party to the political center in 1992 to elect Bill Clinton, said he will fight for working families against "powerful forces and powerful interests" - rhetoric which some compared to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

"So often powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seemed stacked against you - even as you do what's right for you and your family," Mr. Gore declared.

The theme reassured union workers - who have flirted with Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate - about Mr. Gore's support for "working Americans," said Mark Robertson, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 169 in Mansfield.

"He talked about things that affect the everyday, average working people, such as his call for taking medical decisions away from HMOs and giving them back to doctors," Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Gore made a bid for independent voters. He celebrated welfare reform, free trade, and pledged to cut the crime rate "year after year - every single year throughout this decade."

But the bid to marry populist and "New Democrat" themes holds some risks, Mr. Beck said.

Mr. Clinton's abandonment of liberal causes after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994 appealed to voters who a decade earlier rejected "tried and true Democratic themes" to embrace Ronald Reagan, Mr. Beck said. It enabled Mr. Clinton to easily defeat Bob Dole four years ago.

"On the other hand, my take is these populist themes always have a lot of resonance with the American public - the redistribution of income and benefits within American society. But with the blurring of class distinctions and people moving into 21st century occupations who are not clearly workers or managers, one wonders how much resonance there will be with them," Mr. Beck said.

Mr. Gore's populist speech may wipe out Mr. Nader, but it could scare away independents, said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

"I don't think most Americans are feeling oppressed. They want to _keep the prosperity going, not free us from evil special interests, and the Bush campaign has moved aggressively since Thursday to address the leftward-leaning direction of the speech," Dr. Green said.

Curt Steiner, the mastermind behind Republican George Voinovich's run for governor in 1990 and Mike DeWine's campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1994, said Mr. Gore's strategy is to frame the race as one about "issues instead of personalities."

"It appears that Bush has struck a tone that is more in tune with the times. What Gore is trying to do is make this about issues at a level that is perhaps more serious than people feel right now," he said.

In the battle to carry Ohio, Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said the Gore campaign will "dedicate a lot of campaign and field workers and visit it often."

Mr. Gore will focus on organized labor, farmers, and those in high-tech industries to contrast his stances on the issues with those of Mr. Bush, Mr. Harkin said.

"He has to say, 'The best thing for your future is to elect a fiscally responsible president who will bring down that federal debt and keep interest rates low,' " he said.

He said if Ohio supporters of Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.)backed him because of his support for campaign finance reform, Mr. Gore will capture their votes.

"They have no place to go except Gore-Lieberman. The Republicans in the Senate will not let it through. But with Al Gore as president, we will pass it," he said.

The Democratic National Committee has assigned a staff member to organize ethnic voters in Ohio. As Mr. Gore's campaign apparatus in Ohio focuses on buying TV spots and organizing the candidates' travel plans, the DNC effort will work on direct mail, phone calls, and get-out-the vote efforts, Mr. Ruvolo said.

Suburban voters may hold the key to who carries Ohio, Mr. Ruvolo said.

"We have to energize our base in the big cities, but a lot of our message will be to suburban voters and I'm confident we will remain the center. Republicans are too socially conservative for most independent, swing voters. We tend to be too fiscally liberal. But when Bill Clinton took care of the deficit problem, we took away the issue from the Republicans."



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