ASHLAND, Ohio - On Tuesday, either Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell or Attorney General Jim Petro will emerge as the Ohio Republican Party's best hope of winning the governor's office for a fifth consecutive term.
Whoever emerges from the GOP primary for governor will have his work cut out for him.
Early polls show U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the Democratic front-runner, beating both Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Petro in November's general election. And a toxic primary campaign - coupled with Statehouse scandal, an unpopular sitting Republican governor, and a difficult economy - have already tainted both candidates.
"Either one of them that get there in November, they've got a lot of work to do to convince the citizens that they are going to do a much better job than Bob Taft," Tina Hawley, a Republican candidate for Ashland County Commissioner, said after a Blackwell event Friday at the Fin, Feather & Fur Outfitters in Ashland.
On the campaign trail in Ashland County, Ms. Hawley said she's met Republican voters whose allegiances are being tested in the political climate.
"I've heard a few people who are Republicans say they may give the other party an opportunity," said Ms. Hawley, who hasn't decided whether to support Mr. Blackwell or Mr. Petro.
Both Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Petro believe they will fare best in November, but they have different perceptions about what general elections voters will look for in a winning candidate.
Mr. Blackwell of Cincinnati, where he was a city councilman and mayor, said Friday during his stop in Ashland that a "winning Republican candidate in the fall" must be able to count on the GOP base, have a credible message of change, and have the ability to "pick off" some blocs of traditional Democrat voters.
Mr. Blackwell, who has cast himself as a critic of Mr. Taft and a party outsider even though he has held office as a Republican in Columbus the last 12 years, believes he can win over some partisan converts.
"I think I have the fiscally conservative, pro-life Democrats, who will not see Strickland, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as being representative of their interests fiscally or on the social issues," he said. "And I've always done well among African-American voters."
Earlier Friday, during a campaign event at the Sugar Creek Restaurant in Sheffield Village, near Lorain, Mr. Blackwell, who is African-American, met with a group of African-American pastors - a group that included Democrats.
One lifelong Democrat, Mark Ballard, of the Greater Victory Christian Ministry in Lorain, said he planned to support Mr. Blackwell.
"I will support him throughout his entire political career because I trust him," Mr. Ballard said, adding that he believes Mr. Blackwell would find support from African-American voters in the general election. "I understand the man, I understand his vision, he has a plan, and he has proven that he can make his plans work, and, even when there is an unpopular decision, he stands by what is right."
To Mr. Petro, Mr. Blackwell's conservative ties will make him too "extreme" for some voters.
"There are many, many independent voters who look at Ken Blackwell as extreme, and they are voters who are hesitant to elect someone who is ideologically extreme or an ideologue, someone who is not as concerned about substantive management of government," Mr. Petro said Friday during a campaign stop at Washington Court House.
Mr. Petro also predicted that Mr. Blackwell's Tax Expenditure Limitation proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot will "become a big anchor around his neck."
Asked if he saw any scenario in which Mr. Blackwell can defeat Mr. Strickland, Mr. Petro replied: "I can't see any."
Like Mr. Blackwell, Mr. Petro is counting on winning some Democratic voters.
The attorney general believes he has a strong base in the "Democratic territory" of Cuyahoga County, where he was a county commissioner and has carried the county in four statewide elections. Mr. Petro, who now lives in Columbus, also said he's done well in central Ohio.
"I represent the kind of candidate that really can take Ted Strickland on issues that will hurt him, but that are very credible to voters," said Mr. Petro, a former state auditor, who has projected himself as an effective manager with plans to consolidate state government.
Last week, Rob Frost, the chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, said one of the main reasons his county party endorsed Mr. Petro over Mr. Blackwell was the attorney general's chances of winning in the general election.
"Jim has a much greater chance of beating Strickland in the fall," Mr. Frost said. "It's a large reason that went into why we endorsed Jim. Some of the reasons are what he's laid out in terms of reforming state government and being able to cut back and bring down the cost of higher education. I think those are the three major issues that voters are going to want to hear solutions on."
The 2006 Akron Buckeye Poll, researched by the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, showed Mr. Petro having a slightly better chance than Mr. Blackwell in a general election campaign against Mr. Strickland.
"The conventional wisdom would be that Petro is more electable in the fall election because he is more moderate," said John Green, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
The Buckeye poll also showed that many Ohio voters want change in leadership after 16 years of Republican rule.
To Mr. Blackwell, that's bad news for Mr. Petro.
"The fact of the matter is that we've been in control for 16 years," he said. "Jim Petro is viewed by many Republicans as being Taft-like or Taft-lite. He represents more of the same."
Mr. Strickland, a 12-year congressman from Lisbon, a small town in eastern Ohio's Columbiana county, likes his chances regardless of who emerges from the Republican primary. Mr. Strickland faces Bryan Flannery, a former state lawmaker, in the Democratic primary.
"We believe that Ted is in a strong position to win the general election because he has a clear vision to move the state in the right direction," said Jess Goode, a campaign spokesman.
Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, believes the eventual GOP nominee will be held accountable for the party's record over the last 16 years.
"If government is bloated, then it is bloated on Republican watch," said Mr. Rothenberg. "There hasn't been a Democratic governor in 16 years. The things that Jim Petro and Ken Blackwell are cleaning up are Republican messes. And they've been part of the problem."
And both GOP candidates have tried to distance themselves from Tom Noe, a contributor to both of their past campaigns. Mr. Noe, the former GOP fund-raiser and rare-coin dealer from Maumee, is under state and federal indictments for allegedly stealing money from a $50 million state rare-coin investment fund he managed and illegally funneling cash to the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.
Ken Light, a 67-year-old Ashland resident who worked at a General Motors plant in Mansfield, believes any scandal advantages the Democratic party is claiming are overstated. He plans to vote Republican in November and he expects many Ohioans to do the same.
Mr. Light, after the Blackwell event in Ashland, said: "I'm probably further right than Rush Limbaugh, and the people I associate with, even at General Motors, being a UAW shop, you would be surprised at how many of those people over there feel the same way I do."
But Mr. Strickland's rural roots and experience representing a congressional district filled with small towns will help him compete in parts of Ohio where Democrats often have not, said Domenick Mucci, mayor of Steubenville, a steel town on the Ohio River.
"Ted knows our concerns, our problems here," Mr. Mucci said. "He will definitely be a voice for eastern Ohio."
Contact Steve Eder at: email@example.com or 419-724-6272.