More than a month before he won the Democratic nomination for governor, at a time when it was unclear whom he'd face in the fall, Ted Strickland ended a cold day of campaigning with a late dinner and a reporter's barrage of questions on abortion, gay marriage, civil unions, and gay adoption.
After several minutes of answers, Mr. Strickland stopped, looked up from his sandwich, and delivered a line he would later amplify at rallies in Toledo and around the state shortly before Tuesday's primary election.
"I will address all these issues, and I'll take a position," Mr. Strickland said. "But I will not allow this race for governor to be decided by all these polarizing issues."
Strategists say that is smart.
To beat Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell this November, political consultants in and outside of Mr. Strickland's campaign agree, the congressman from southeast Ohio must keep what his spokesman calls a "laser focus" on job creation, education, and health care - areas Mr. Strickland says Republican leaders have neglected in favor of social issues.
Bring it on, Republicans say.
GOP strategists contend Mr. Blackwell's path to victory runs through his calls for lower taxes and less government spending - and his ability to portray Mr. Strickland, with the help of a lengthy congressional record, as an impediment to job growth and a traditional "tax and spend Democrat."
"We have to show that while [Mr. Strickland] pretends to be a moderate, he has a liberal voting record in Washington, D.C., that is out of touch with Ohioans," said House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), adding: "If Ohioans want lower taxes and more freedom, they need to be with Ken Blackwell."
In what promises to be one of the most-watched, biggest-spending, highest-stakes elections in Ohio history, interviews with political insiders from both major parties suggest the outcome could hinge on which candidate can best control the issue debate, run as an agent of change, label his opponent an extremist, and appease competing constituencies.
Each candidate starts with some advantages, some weaknesses, and a long "to-do" list.
Mr. Strickland glided to victory in the Democratic primary and breaks for November with leads in fund-raising and opinion polls over Mr. Blackwell, who slugged out a win over Attorney General Jim Petro in a costly and negative Republican race.
Democrats say Mr. Strickland's record of success in his rural congressional district and his career support for gun rights will attract independent and Republican voters who never considered voting for U.S. Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race.
He won re-election in 2000 with 58 percent of the vote, according to figures compiled by his campaign. George W. Bush carried the district with 57 percent.
Mr. Strickland hopes to woo independent and GOP voters in part by emphasizing his up-from-poverty personal story and the fact that he is a Methodist minister. On the road last week, for example, he frequently marveled to crowds that the son of a steelworker who grew up on a dirt road could someday run for governor.
Republicans say they can undercut that image by questioning Mr. Strickland's lack of executive experience and familiarizing voters with his record in Congress.
The state GOP has already ripped Mr. Strickland's opposition to some of President Bush's tax cuts and his poor ratings from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Blackwell dubbed him a "big-spending, big government, big liberal" last week. One of Mr. Blackwell's top advisors, Gene Pierce, said this week he was sifting through a 150-page stack of Mr. Strickland's congressional votes.
Democratic leaders say they will defend Mr. Strickland aggressively and work hard to pitch him positively to voters. They and Mr. Strickland say they expect more sinister attacks than the "liberal" label - something along the lines of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ads that scarred Mr. Kerry's campaign with doubts about his service in Vietnam.
"John Kerry wasn't a good enough veteran," said Chris Redfern, the state Democratic chairman. "Ted Strickland hasn't been married long enough. Ted Strickland doesn't know the New Testament well enough. Whatever the Republicans can do to distract from the facts, they will."
Democrats need a disciplined message in response, Mr. Redfern said: "We must begin and end every sentence with 'jobs.'●"
Republicans say Mr. Blackwell's strengths begin with his dynamic speaking style and a large support base around Cincinnati, his hometown.
They also say Ohio continues to lean Republican, despite a year of scandals surrounding term-limited Gov. Bob Taft and indicted GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe, and that Mr. Blackwell's past friction with Mr. Taft over tax increases help him run as a GOP "outsider," even though he has been a GOP office holder in Columbus the past 12 years.
Mr. Blackwell was "the one Republican who could legitimately be a Republican but also represent real change" during the primary, said Rex Elsass, a media consultant in Columbus who produced ads for Mr. Blackwell's opponent, Mr. Petro.
Added Jason Mauk, the Ohio Republican Party's political director: "It's fair to say that Democrats are underestimating his ability to communicate with voters on the issues that matter."
Some Republicans worry privately that Mr. Blackwell's outspoken conservatism will alienate a key group of Mr. Bush's 2004 supporters: "security moms" - middle-age women who backed the President on national defense, but might lean Democratic on other issues.
Democrats say they can pelt Mr. Blackwell with opposition to the so-called "TEL" amendment on the November ballot, which limits government spending and which Mr. Blackwell has championed over the objections of many local government officials in both parties and this past week from state GOP leaders. They've already begun lassoing him to Mr. Taft, who endorsed Mr. Blackwell this week, and to Mr. Noe, who gave Mr. Blackwell $3,000 for past campaigns.
As they drive for undecideds, both candidates have to worry about some of their party's traditionally strongest supporters.
Polls and pundits nationwide suggest President Bush's sinking popularity and a rash of scandals have conservatives feeling surly this year. If surly translates to "staying home" in November, Mr. Blackwell could lose big. Strategists say stressing his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, among other social issues, is critical to motivating those voters.
Other analysts say Mr. Strickland must work to keep African-American voters, a Democratic stalwart, on his side. Mr. Blackwell would be Ohio's first African-American governor if elected, and Mr. Pierce, his strategist, said Mr. Strickland's decision not to select an African-American running mate, among other controversial moves, provides a "recipe for inroads" with those voters.
"The Democratic Party has ignored or taken for granted the African-American community for years," Mr. Pierce said. "The wounds are real."
Mr. Blackwell courted African-American voters for help in the primary. In Toledo, he appears to have failed. A sampling of some of the city's most predominantly African-American precincts shows only 4 percent of voters there selected Republican primary ballots on Tuesday, down from 9 percent in 2004 and 6 percent in 2002.
Democratic leaders say they are confident Mr. Strickland will run strong among African-Americans and urban voters in general, despite his rural roots. The key, said Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, one of the few major-city Ohio mayors to back Mr. Strickland so far, is to "stay moderate" and develop a plan to address urban issues.
Mr. Elsass, the GOP media consultant, said it's "nonsense" to expect African Americans to lift Mr. Blackwell to victory. The election, he said, could hinge on how much voters connect Republicans past and future.
"If this election is a referendum on Bob Taft," Mr. Elsass said, "Ted Strickland will be governor. If Ken Blackwell is able to talk about his ideas of lower taxes and restraining government spending he will succeed."
Columbus bureau chief James Drew contributed to this report.
Contact Jim Tankersley at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.