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Blackwell-Strickland debates to bypass Toledo

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Ken Blackwell campaigned near Toledo yesterday, and Ted Strickland plans to open an office here today, but Ohio's two leading candidates for governor will skip the city when debating time rolls around.

Mr. Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state, and Mr. Strickland, a Democratic congressman from Lisbon, said yesterday that they agreed to four debates before the Nov. 7 election. Neither side released set dates, although a Blackwell adviser said they will likely start in mid-August and end in October.

The list of locations, forged from weeks of negotiations, includes Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Youngstown.

It does not include anywhere in northwest Ohio, launchpad of the investment and ethics scandal that has rattled state government over the last year and brought criminal convictions for Gov. Bob Taft and former Republican power broker Tom Noe.

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Campaign officials on both sides said they agreed not to discuss specifics of the selections. "We believe our mutually agreed upon debate structure will help all Ohioans learn more about the candidates and the policy issues facing Ohio," they said in a joint statement.

Mr. Strickland said in a phone interview that he could not elaborate. Gene Pierce, a Columbus political consultant who helped negotiate the schedule on Mr. Blackwell's behalf, said the candidates received "upwards of 50 independent requests" for debates.

"We had some give and take" in the negotiations, Mr. Pierce said. "We settled on four. We tried to be as fair as we could."

Both candidates have courted Lucas County this election. Mr. Blackwell announced his running mate selection, Tom Raga, in Toledo and has returned several times since. Yesterday, he stopped at the intersection of the Ohio Turnpike and I-280 to promote his plan to lease the toll road to fund economic development.

Mr. Strickland campaigned at an Independence Day celebration in South Toledo this week and last month spent an entire day raising money here. He'll return tonight to open a field office on Superior Street across from Fifth Third Field, in the former campaign headquarters of Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.

Mr. Finkbeiner has frequently expressed hope that Mr. Strickland, if elected, would focus more state resources on Toledo. At a rally this spring, he introduced Mr. Strickland as a candidate who was not beholden to any of the "Three C's" of Ohio - Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati.

John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said, "It's disappointing to learn that Toledo is not important in the govenor's race, in that in the eyes of the candidates it doesn't merit hosting a debate. Particularly, it's disappointing that Mr. Strickland, who as the front-runner should have more clout in the negotiations, didn't insist on a Toledo debate."

Ron Royhab, The Blade's vice president and executive editor, invited Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Strickland earlier this year to a Toledo debate co-sponsored by the newspaper and WTVG-TV, Channel 13.

The chairman of the state Democratic Party, Chris Redfern, said yesterday afternoon that he hoped the campaigns would agree to add a northwest Ohio forum, possibly at the University of Toledo. Later, he called back to say "the party's not going to play a role" in any further debate negotiations.

A state Republican Party spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Toledo last hosted a gubernatorial debate in 1998, when Democrat Lee Fisher - Mr. Strickland's running mate this year - and Mr. Taft, a Republican, met in the first of three forums. Mr. Taft debated Democrat Tim Hagan in Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton in 2002.

Contact Jim Tankersley at:

jtankersley@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.

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