Just under five months before the November election, two things are clear about Ohio's pivotal U.S. Senate race:
Most of the Democratic candidates in the handful of red and purple-state races that figure to dictate control of the U.S. Senate this fall have embraced the "centrist" label and platform; some, such as Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, boast conservative stances on abortion or other social issues.
Mr. Brown carries a more populist - Republicans derisively say "liberal" - banner in his Ohio battle with GOP incumbent Mike DeWine. He wants troops out of Iraq this year. He denounces America's free trade pacts. He criticizes Mr. DeWine's votes to repeal the estate tax and make some of President Bush's tax cuts permanent.
When Republicans rip his votes against certain military or intelligence spending, or his opposition to a federal constitutional same-sex marriage ban, Mr. Brown dismisses them with a "yeah, so?" shrug.
It's not a prevalent strategy, in Republican-leaning states or otherwise. Mr. Brown conceded as much recently, as he searched for the names of leading populists in Congress today. "I'm not sure," Mr. Brown said, before settling on Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa). "They don't all jump to mind, do they?"
Analysts and partisans say Mr. Brown's campaign themes stem from conviction and necessity: his 14-year congressional voting record would make it hard to escape them.
Mr. DeWine has largely ignored his opponent so far, but other Republicans pummel Mr. Brown almost daily with allegations of running left of the state's voters. "I'll give him credit for staying true to who he is," said John McClelland, a state GOP spokesman, "but it's not going to win him an election in Ohio."
Added Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee: "It seems like Brown is running as a proud liberal, which isn't something you're seeing from the other candidates across the country. He's probably not looking for political advice from us, but we hope he keeps doing it."
Mr. Brown calls those Republicans "out of touch" and insists frequently that his views are "right in line with the public's," including on social issues such as gay marriage - he opposed the statewide ban that voters approved in 2004 - and abortion rights, which he supports.
"I voted against the Iraq war," Mr. Brown said. "I'm proud of that vote. I'm proud of my vote against the prescription bill the drug companies wrote, against the energy bill the oil companies wrote."
Socking Republicans on Iraq, gas prices, and special interest ties is the base script for Democratic candidates this year, as the party attempts to win control of the Senate and/or House.
Democrats in several key Senate races - including Republican-held seats in Montana, Missouri, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee - are attempting to augment that with moderate or conservative stances on abortion, gay marriage, gun control, or immigration.
Some of those states boast polarizing GOP incumbents, and their challengers are trying to fashion themselves as "acceptable alternatives," said Jon Delano, a television political editor who teaches politics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"Each state's party that's challenging seeks to find both the candidate and the message that's resonating in that state," Mr. Delano said. Party leaders, he added, just want to win elections: "And however [candidates] want to win is fine with them."
If other candidates are trying to minimize their vulnerabilities with swing voters, Mr. Brown is trying to focus the electorate on issues where he sees advantages.
Democratic polling shows Ohioans care most about the economy, Iraq, and utility prices, state party chairman Chris Redfern said this week. "At some point," Mr. Redfern said, Republicans "run out of their hot-button issues and people start to look around and say, 'Why don't I have a job?'"
Centrist or populist, this year's Democratic candidates have all faced Republican charges that they are too liberal for their states. And though analysts say the national political environment bodes ill for the GOP, they all face some harsh recent history.
Only two Democrats have picked up Senate seats in the so-called red states, which Mr. Bush carried in his presidential victories, in the last four years. The last to do it was Ken Salazar of Colorado, who won with a campaign that emphasized his rural roots and portrayed him as a native son whom voters could trust.
Swing voters "are not going to agree with you every single time, and you shouldn't try to make them," said Jim Carpenter, who managed Mr. Salazar's campaign, "but you want them to say, you know, I may disagree with him, but he seems like a decent guy, he seems like he'll do the right thing. You have to be genuine, and you have to be authentic. I think that voters are very smart, and that they see through people trying to be something that they're not."
Mr. Carpenter said another key was to emphasize a set of issues that cut across party lines. Oddly enough, that appears to be Mr. DeWine's re-election strategy so far: He has alternately cozied up to the President and stiff-armed him, and his first set of television ads emphasized his work to help children.
Mr. DeWine's campaign says differences in the Brown and DeWine records will ultimately decide the race - another point of bipartisan agreement as November nears.
Contact Jim Tankersley at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.
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