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Published: Sunday, 6/4/2006

Dems warned not to yield values debate to GOP


COLUMBUS - Democrats cannot afford to cede the debate of family values to Republicans if they hope to make gains this year in Ohio and nationally, rising Democratic star and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama said yesterday.

"People don't have to be religious to be moral, and to be ethical, and to speak about the common good ," he said before a party dinner expected to raise more than $500,000 for gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and other statewide Democrat candidates.

"What you don't want to do is engage in the equivalent of showing up to church two days before the election, kind of clapping off rhythm ," he said. "People sniff out inauthentic expressions of faith."

Mr. Obama specifically took aim at debate set for next week in Congress on a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, drawing comparisons to the Republican gubernatorial candidacy of Ken Blackwell. The secretary of state successfully championed a similar state amendment in 2004.

"I know Mr. Blackwell is going to try to take advantage of that [conservative] base as much as he can," he said. "I had someone similar - Alan Keyes - run against me when I ran for the U.S. Senate two years ago. I think that base of voters who consider [gay marriage] the most important issue facing America caps out at around 25-30 percent."

It was no accident that Mr. Obama and another U.S. senator frequently mentioned as a presidential contender in 2008, Joe Biden of Delaware, were in Ohio speaking to the party's faithful.

The Buckeye State, credited with keeping George Bush in the White House in 2004, is expected to again play a key battleground role in 2008. Democrats are demonstrating rare confidence this year that they'll make gains statewide in the wake of GOP pay-to-play scandals.

"Ohioans want leadership in these challenging times, not just protest and pessimism," Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett said. "Republicans aren't perfect, but so far we're the only party out there fixing the problems facing state government and getting back to the business of leading Ohio. Democrats have done nothing but cry and complain."

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said he was surprised more high-profile national Democrats were not clamoring to speak at the dinner.

"Ohio is no longer just the mother of presidents but is the crossroads of presidential politics," he said. "Ohio has never been more exciting, and we don't usually associate excitement with Ohio. Ohio is predictable and steady, but it is ground zero for presidential politics."

Although last night's dinner featured two potential presidential contenders, it was clear Mr. Obama was the top of the marquee, serving as keynote speaker while Mr. Biden was relegated to predinner warm-up.

While he used his speech to criticize the Bush Administration, Mr. Biden said Democrats should not use a newfound congressional majority he hopes will be elected in November to start investigations of the President and his administration.

"I hope Democrats learned a lesson from Republicans," he said. "When they did that with Clinton, we gained. The American public wants results."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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