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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

Leading Democrat plans D.C. detour off campaign trail

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

While other candidates for governor pound the campaign trail this week, Ted Strickland will fly to Washington to cast - not court - votes.

Perhaps it's confidence, perhaps the tug of duty. Either way, Mr. Strickland, a Democratic congressman from Lisbon, Ohio, and his party's front-runner in the May 2 primary, will ditch three days of last-minute campaigning for Capitol Hill.

Other candidates figure to set a more frantic pace this week, as one of the roughest Ohio governor's primaries in decades hurtles to an end.

Republicans Jim Petro and Kenneth Blackwell are in a brawl to the finish for the GOP nomination. Mr. Petro, the attorney general, and Mr. Blackwell, the secretary of state, have criticized each other's policy proposals and character in television advertisements, press releases, and public events in recent days.

Recent polls showed Mr. Blackwell ahead, with enough voters undecided to tip the race either way.

Other polls had Mr. Strickland leading his Democratic opponent, former state legislator and Notre Dame football standout Bryan Flannery, by wide margins - suggesting Mr. Flannery must mount the political equivalent of a one-minute, 90-yard, no-timeouts touchdown drive this week if he hopes to advance to November.

Mr. Strickland is confident Mr. Flannery will not beat him and content to let Republican infighting dominate the final pre-primary headlines.

"The more exposure that Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Petro get, perhaps the better off I am," Mr. Strickland said in a phone interview.

"Neither candidate is conducting himself in a rather attractive way right now," he said. "So I'm not worried about them getting any more attention I might not get."

In a campaign's final week, candidates typically worry about wooing swing voters and rallying their support base.

Mr. Flannery will try to do both, darting to campaign events in every part of the state, including a Toledo stop on Wednesday.

"We'll be everywhere and anywhere," Mr. Flannery said. "It's campaigning. You gotta shake hands and kiss babies it's being out there, being visible, rallying the troops."

Mr. Petro's campaign schedule shows plans to take part in fund-raisers, roundtable discussions, and media interviews - along with stops at the National Identity Theft Conference and the Ohio Cable Telecommunications Annual Meeting - in or near Columbus this week.

On Tuesday he'll stage a one-man debate at the City Club of Cleveland because of Mr. Blackwell's decision to skip the event.

Mr. Petro plans to roll into Election Day with a statewide bus tour, starting on Saturday.

Mr. Petro's roundtable appearances have been "really well received, so he is doing several of those along with more interviews," said Kim Norris, a campaign spokesman. "It's a busy schedule, along with some of his official duties."

Mr. Blackwell's campaign, which released weekly campaign schedules in the past, has so far kept its final plans classified.

Party leaders are bracing for more attacks in the primary's waning days. But they're confident a long general election haul will wash the remnants from voters' minds.

"By November, a lot of what happened in late April will be forgotten," said John McClelland, a state Republican Party spokesman.

"Past May 2, I think you're going to see the Republican Party come together as a family," Mr. McClelland said.

When he's not in Washington, Mr. Strickland hopes to help his Democratic Party family this week.

He campaigned yesterday in southeast Ohio for State Sen. Charlie Wilson, the man Democratic leaders hope will overcome a botched candidate petition and, running as a write-in, win their nomination for Ohio's 6th Congressional District.

Mr. Strickland is vacating that seat, which is a crucial piece of Democrats' dream of gaining control of the House come fall.

Mr. Strickland plans to campaign again with Mr. Wilson all day Friday, after returning from his D.C. swing.

The rest of his week includes announcing a higher education plan in Columbus and weekend campaigning in Clark, Stark, and Summit counties.

Congressmen often miss votes in the busy weeks before an election.

Mr. Strickland said he feels a responsibility to keep his absences to an "absolute minimum."

For the last year, he said, "I've tried to work every day to get around the state, talk to people, to build support."

Mr. Flannery said his opponent could be miscalculating.

"Rule No. 1 of politics is you run scared or unopposed," Mr. Flannery said.

"As for whether it's a mistake, we'll find out on May 2," he said.

Staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this story.

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



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