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Bruising primary battle likely for governor, GOP leader says

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COLUMBUS - Since becoming chairman of the Ohio Republican Party in 1988, Bob Bennett said he has worked at "all costs" to avoid bruising contested primaries for governor.

But Mr. Bennett yesterday said his string likely will end as three veteran GOP officeholders vie for the party's nomination in the 2006 election. Because of term limits, Republican Gov. Bob Taft cannot run for re-election.

The three announced Republican candidates for governor are state Auditor Betty Montgomery, Attorney General Jim Petro, and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

"Any one of them would be a fine governor, but before that opportunity presents itself, a costly, messy primary fight stands in the way," said Mr. Bennett, who was unanimously re-elected yesterday to another two-year term by the Republican State Central and Executive Committee. "It threatens to leave our party bruised and bloody with fewer resources to spend on the general election in November."

A contested GOP primary for governor in 2006 would hamper the winner's chances of beating the Democrat in the general election, eliminate two of the GOP's strongest candidates from the statewide ticket, and threaten the GOP majority on the board that sets legislative boundaries every 10 years, Mr. Bennett said.

Speaking at a state GOP luncheon yesterday, Mr. Blackwell said with a smile: "I can make a strong case for Betty and Jim staying in their offices. They have another term. I'm term-limited. But that's for a different time."

Mr. Petro, who served two terms as auditor, is in his first term as attorney general. Ms. Montgomery, who served two terms as attorney general, is in her first term as auditor. Statewide executive officials are limited to two consecutive four-year terms.

In 1990, Mr. Bennett helped prevent a contested GOP primary between George Voinovich and Mr. Taft. Mr. Voinovich ran for governor and won. Mr. Taft dropped out of the gubernatorial primary, ran for secretary of state, and defeated Sherrod Brown, now a congressman.

In 1998, Mr. Bennett struck a similar deal, with Mr. Blackwell bowing out of the GOP primary for governor to run for secretary of state, enabling Mr. Taft to run for governor without a primary opponent.

Mr. Taft defeated Lee Fisher in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002 over Democrat Tim Hagan.

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said he hopes the Democrats have a contested primary for governor next year.

"A contested primary will elevate name recognition, viability, and fund-raising ability for our candidate," Mr. Redfern said.

Possible Democratic candidates include Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, Akron Mayor Dan Plusquellic, and Mr. Brown.

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.

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