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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

Blackwell-Petro fight leaves GOP burning

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Fire metaphors are overused in politics, but one seemed appropriate in Ohio last week. The Tom Noe inferno reached new heights, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell tossed his primary opponent into the flames, and Democrats and analysts debated whether Mr. Blackwell was a firefighter or an arsonist.

Left in the coals was the question of whether Mr. Blackwell's strategy would light his path to the governorship or burn him - and Republicans statewide - in a general election.

Mr. Blackwell, the secretary of state, ripped fellow Republicans on ethical grounds this week. His targets included Attorney General Jim Petro, the other GOP candidate for governor; scandal-plagued Gov. Bob Taft, and Mr. Noe, a Republican fund-raiser under indictments from state and federal grand juries.

The attacks came through interviews and television ads, in a week that featured a state audit accusing Mr. Noe of stealing $13.5 million in taxpayer investments, convictions of two former Taft aides on ethics charges related to unreported favors from Mr. Noe, and new allegations that Mr. Noe laundered money to President Bush's re-election campaign because he desperately wanted to join Mr. Bush's elite "Pioneer" fund-raising club.

Mr. Blackwell criticized Mr. Petro for poor oversight of the state's investment in Mr. Noe's rare coin funds. His ads referenced Mr. Taft's conviction on ethics charges last year and called Mr. Petro's ethics in office "worse than Taft's."

"While my focus is on job creation, the legitimate (concern) in the minds of the body politic is will the next governor tell the truth, keep promises, and reform the political culture of Columbus," Mr. Blackwell said in an interview. "I think that takes tough and truthful advertising and campaigning."

Analysts said Mr. Blackwell's strategy appears two-fold: to distance himself from the Republican establishment for the primary election and inoculate himself from Democrats' corruption charges this fall.

Jim Ruvolo, a Democratic strategist not working on the governor's race, called the tactics "very smart."

"His theory is - and it's not a bad one - hey, I'm not one of these guys, I'm attacking them," Mr. Ruvolo said. "Don't hold it against me in November."

Some Republicans criticized Mr. Blackwell's attacks. A spokesman for Mr. Petro labeled them a "campaign of lies." Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett said Mr. Blackwell "should have a better strategy for winning this primary than simply burning down the house."

Democratic leaders questioned whether Mr. Blackwell could claim GOP "outsider" status credibly.

The party's endorsed candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, called Mr. Blackwell "transparent in his attempts to absolve himself of any responsibility for what has happened in the state of Ohio" in an interview this week.

"His behavior reminds me of the sinner who is facing death and trying to absolve himself of a life of sin," Mr. Strickland said. "It's akin to a deathbed conversion. I don't think it will work."

Mr. Blackwell is a fiscally and socially conservative 12-year statewide officeholder. He has battled the Ohio GOP establishment and benefited from it.

He weighed running against Mr. Taft, the party's anointed candidate, in the 1998 governor's race, until party leaders persuaded him to go for secretary of state instead. Before switching races, Mr. Blackwell called Mr. Taft "attached at the hip to the status quo."

In 2004, Mr. Blackwell fought Mr. Taft over a sales tax increase the governor signed.

Mr. Blackwell also worked with Mr. Taft that year on a campaign finance reform dubbed "Taft-Blackwell." He took more than $1 million total in campaign donations directly from the state Republican Party in his two previous races. Last summer he returned $3,000 in contributions from Mr. Noe.

Stephen Brooks, the associate director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said it was unclear how much reform-minded voters would distinguish between Republicans in November. He also said Mr. Blackwell's attacks could add volume to Democrats' criticism of Republican ethics.

"There is that tenet in advertising that if you want someone to understand the message, you have to repeat it 15 times," Mr. Brooks said. "And if Blackwell repeats it 15 times before the primary and the Democrats repeat it 30 times before the general, then he's helped" advance the message.

Staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this story.

Contact Jim Tankersley at: jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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