COLUMBUS - It was shortly after the 2004 presidential election that Brian Burgess concluded that Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has what it takes to be governor of Ohio.
"Total determination and total steadfastness against the media desire to turn Ohio into Florida," said Mr. Burgess, referring to the furor over hanging chads, butterfly ballots, and recounts that delayed the final outcome of the 2000 election.
"A lot of Republicans felt that Ken Blackwell prevented that from happening," added Mr. Burgess, a Cincinnati-area resident and co-founder of an Internet-based group that encourages citizens to run for public office.
President Bush sealed his re-election in Ohio in 2004, aided by a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that Mr. Blackwell led and voters approved. Those victories helped make Mr. Blackwell, Ohio's chief elections officer, the front-runner in the GOP nomination for governor.
A former Cincinnati mayor, Mr. Blackwell became state treasurer in 1994 and is serving his second term as secretary of state.
Over the past two decades, Mr. Blackwell has emerged as one of the nation's most prominent conservatives through his support of President George H.W. Bush and now his son, President George W. Bush; former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp (R., N.Y.), billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.).
As the May 2 primary approaches, supporters and critics say Mr. Blackwell's track record during the 2004 election offers insights on what kind of governor he would be.
Stephanie Studebaker was the Ohio press secretary for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and she also worked on the campaigns of John Edwards and the party's nominee, John Kerry.
Ms. Studebaker said Mr. Blackwell in 2004 tried to suppress votes from Democratic areas, in part by failing to take steps with county elections boards to prevent long lines at the polls.
Mr. Blackwell initially directed that online voter registration forms be printed on 80-pound weight paper. After protests from Democrats and voting-rights activists, Mr. Blackwell said county boards of elections could accept regular weight, such as copier paper, which is 20-pound weight.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, charged that a shortage of voting machines "disenfranchised scores, if not hundreds of thousands of predominantly minority and Democratic voters."
"Secretary Blackwell seemed to be representing only a certain segment of people," said Ms. Studebaker, a Democratic congressional candidate in the Dayton area. "I am afraid that would happen again if he were to become governor."
Mr. Blackwell rejects the criticism, citing the Kerry campaign's acceptance of the results in Ohio as evidence that "we gave folks a fair election."
A bigger turning point in his career, Mr. Blackwell said, came in 1979, a few days after he became mayor of Cincinnati, when 11 people were trampled to death as a crowd scrambled for seats at a Who concert.
"That experience prepared me for tension-packed, unanticipated consequences. I thought 2004, as it related to all the eyes of the nation and a good many of the world on Ohio, was another one of those tests that you are presented with to see how you weather storms.
"Except for the political lunatic fringe, nobody will make the case that this election was handled in an extremely partisan fashion," Mr. Blackwell added. "I managed successfully a bipartisan elections system across 88 counties."
John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said a Democratic secretary of state in 2004 would have been accused by Republicans of partisanship.
"I don't think Secretary of State Blackwell broke the law or was way out of line. There were a lot of accusations of political manipulation and fraud, and I don't think there's much truth in any of those," he said.
Daniel Tokaji, an assistant law professor at Ohio State University, said criticism that Mr. Blackwell's decisions had a "partisan flavor" were on target in at least two instances - his directive on the paper weight of voter registration forms and his position that provisional ballots should not be counted if cast in the wrong precinct.
Federal law designed provisional ballots as a way to prevent voters from being turned away at the polls if their registrations were mishandled. A federal appeals court upheld Mr. Blackwell's stance.
"I think he was wrong and inconsistent with the Ohio Constitution to refuse to count those ballots," Mr. Tokaji said.
Mr. Blackwell's foe in the May 2 GOP primary, Attorney General Jim Petro, said Mr. Blackwell also erred on the eve of the 2004 election by urging the state to bar Republicans and Democrats from challenging the credentials of voters at the polls. Mr. Petro refused, and a federal appeals court upheld the state law allowing challengers.
"It's my sense that he'll try to do whatever is most expedient," Mr. Petro said of Mr. Blackwell.
Sam Gresham, acting executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said Mr. Blackwell's performance in the 2004 election would foreshadow a highly partisan governor. He predicted that Mr. Blackwell would shift to the political center if he defeats Mr. Petro in the primary.
Mr. Green, the political science professor at the University of Akron, said others believe that Mr. Blackwell can win by sticking to his conservative credentials and taking "a couple of slices from the Democratic base": African-Americans and Catholics.
Mr. Burgess, who is running a "pro-life, pro-family, and pro-decency" political action committee called Family First, which has endorsed Mr. Blackwell, said he hadn't paid much attention to Mr. Blackwell before the 2004 election.
"If you go back and look at the polling, that is where he really took off. His profile was raised as a result of how he handled the situation," he said.
Blade Staff Writer Steve Eder contributed to this report.
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