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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Bush, Kerry converge on southeast Ohio as battle for state heats up

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry came to Ohio this weekend in search of his post-convention bounce, only to find President Bush already here trying to steal it away.

The two candidates were stumping for votes yesterday in southeastern towns - Mr. Kerry here and Mr. Bush in Cambridge - just 25 miles apart. Jim Ruvolo, an Ottawa Hills political consultant and chairman of the Kerry campaign in Ohio, said the region could be critically important. If the economy is good, people there tend to vote on social issues; the area is more socially conservative, and residents tend to go for Republicans. But if the economy is bad, they tend to vote their pocketbooks, which could hurt the GOP incumbent this year, Mr. Ruvolo said.

Today, Mr. Kerry returns to northwest Ohio, another critical region, A rally is scheduled for this afternoon in downtown Bowling Green.

Polls show the tight race is closer in Ohio than in most key states. A Zogby Interactive poll completed last week shows Mr. Bush holds a slight lead in the state.

Four years ago, Mr. Bush won Ohio by less than 4 percentage points over Democrat Al Gore, though polls just before the election had showed Mr. Bush had a bigger lead. Those pre-election polls likely played a part in Mr. Gore's decision to pull ads and scratch visits to the state in the closing weeks.

That's not going to happen this time, Mr. Ruvolo has said.

No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. Though every statewide executive office filled by voters is held by a Republican, Democrats can win here. President Clinton captured the state in both of his elections.

An analysis of the national electoral college picture shows there is more pressure on the President to win Ohio. If he were to lose, it would be difficult to find enough votes in other states to win.

On the other hand, Mr. Kerry could easily lose Ohio and still win the election by picking up a medium-sized state that Al Gore lost four years ago, such as Arizona or Missouri. Pollster John Zogby said there are probably 34 states that will go for the same party as in 2000. Recent polls show most of those states lean the same way as four years ago. But Ohio is a big question mark, he said.

The Bush and Kerry campaigns rolled across the state on bus tours. Making his 19th trip to the state, Mr. Bush started his in Cleveland Friday and moved east. Mr. Kerry continued west on a coast-to-coast postconvention adventure that began in Boston Friday morning.

The candidates have sparred over the state of the economy. Mr. Bush emphasizes statistics that show it recovering. Mr. Kerry says the recovery has not reached the common man.

President Bush told supporters in Canton yesterday he has a plan for peace and prosperity. "After four more years, the American economy will continue to be the strongest in the world," Mr. Bush said.

As he has for most of his term, the President cites factors beyond his control, such as the Sept. 11 attacks and corporate scandals. He reminds crowds the economy was weakening when he took office.

Mr. Kerry has chosen Canton to show there are many pockets the recovery has left behind, traveling there recently to tape a campaign television commercial on the subject.

"The last president that ran on the slogan that we are turning the corner was Herbert Hoover,'' he told a crowd of thousands in Greensburg, Pa., yesterday. "I'm not running to turn the corner. I'm running to climb the mountain and get to the top.

"I am as tired as you are of people who say one thing and do another. Saying you're turning the corner doesn't make it so."

In addition to economics, the candidates have finely tailored messages designed to appeal to traditional Midwestern values. Both candidates talk about expanding opportunities in education, cutting taxes, and improving access to health care. Both candidates talk about freedom and equality.

Both candidates talk about terrorism, though they disagree which approach is best. Mr. Bush asserts the problem demands a military solution. Mr. Kerry said Friday he wants to capture Osama bin Laden and put him on trial in New York and Washington for the murders committed on Sept. 11, 2001.

With 10 buses and seven other vehicles, the Kerry campaign headed straight for the heartland, with stops in Pennsylvania and West Virginia before crossing the border into Ohio.

"In order for Democrats to win in Ohio, we have to get our base committed to the election, not only to vote, but to work to get others to vote," Mr. Ruvolo said at the convention. "The people that are here I think are infused with a sense of enthusiasm and a sense of optimism that we can win."

Finding things for locals all over the state to do is the key to maintaining a high sense of excitement, he said. "You maintain it by work, by getting people to show up for the [door-to-door] lit drops that we will be doing every weekend now."

While Democrats began their weekend canvassing two weekends ago, the Bush campaign has been building and mobilizing grass-roots efforts for months across the state, trying to offset the pool of volunteers Democrats enjoy because of their association with labor unions.

"The Democrats may have invented grass-roots organizing, but this year we are perfecting it," said Kevin Madden, spokesman for the Bush campaign.

Not only are the presidential candidates visiting often, they are sending boatloads of money to Ohio media markets to pay for television advertising. Toledo was recently identified as the top market in the nation for political ads, with two other Ohio markets in the top four.

Local television officials said Friday they had received another sizable ad buy as the Democratic National Committee kicked off a $6 million postconvention campaign and Mr. Bush worked to empty his war chest before he accepts the nomination at the Republican National Convention at the end of the month, as required by federal law.

Mary Gerken, director of sales at WTVG-TV Channel 13, said she wasn't surprised to have received yet another big order from the Bush campaign.

"He's got $60 million to spend before the convention," she said.

A pro-Kerry ad called "Strength" is an effort to capitalize on the party's convention, using clips from his acceptance speech Thursday.

"Safety and security are two of the most important issues in this campaign," said Democratic National Committee Communications Director Jano Cabrera Friday. "Last night John Kerry showed Americans that he can lead this country, win the war on terrorism, and be a strong commander in chief. This ad builds on that momentum."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at: fwenzel@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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