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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

Republican tactics in Ohio echo political ploys of '04

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

The Ohio Republican Party's newly hired "social conservative coordinator" e-mailed an undisclosed group of "pro-family friends" this week, offering a 10-point introduction to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland.

His message attacked the church attendance, work ethic, and voting record of Mr. Strickland, a southeast Ohio congressman and ordained Methodist minister. It alleged Mr. Strickland and his wife of nearly 20 years live in different states - and linked to an Internet posting that questions whether Mr. Strickland is gay.

The e-mail's author, a Christian home school headmaster named Gary Lankford, signed the note with his Ohio Republican Party title below his name. "Pass this information along," he concluded.

Mr. Strickland called the e-mail's charges "preposterous" and "not factual" when informed of them this week, after The Blade obtained a copy. Ohio GOP officials condemned the message and said they disciplined Mr. Lankford but did not fire him.

The e-mail surfaced shortly after the campaign of U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Cedarville) launched a television ad - produced by the agency behind the "Swift Boat" campaign against 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry - that flashed terrorist mug shots and a smoking World Trade Center to underscore criticism of Mr. DeWine's Democratic opponent's record on national security.

Some Democrats see a pattern, in style and in substance.

As an ominous November election thunders closer, they say Ohio Republicans are seeking familiar confines: the security-and-social-issues attacks that helped lift the party to nationwide victories in 2002 and 2004.

"They're just going back to the old playbook of division," said Chris Redfern, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "That dog doesn't hunt."

Republicans are equally unimpressed with recent attempts by Mr. Strickland and U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate nominee, to curry support among voters who broke heavily for President Bush two years ago.

Mr. Strickland has touted his reliance on "biblical principles" in ads on Christian radio stations in hopes of winning evangelical support.

Mr. Brown and his wife, Connie Schultz, a newspaper columnist and author, have pitched a largely economic message to rural crowds across the state. Republicans say both efforts are futile.

Both sides' intentions are clear to anyone who's read a statewide poll in recent weeks. Republican and Democratic strategists generally agree that numbers showing voter unrest on a variety of issues - including gasoline prices, job growth, and the leadership of President Bush and Gov. Bob Taft - are buoying Democrats in Ohio's top two races this year.

But the strategists also say large tracts of voters have not formed solid opinions of Mr. Strickland or Mr. Brown, leaving them open to "definition" by Republicans.

"Ted Strickland is an unknown quantity," said Carlo LoParo, the spokesman for GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell, echoing other Republicans' criticism of Mr. Brown. "He's by no means an Ohioan in terms of his value system, whether it's his economic values or his social values."

Democrats are pushing back with lessons they say they learned from Mr. Kerry's Ohio loss.

In the Senate race, the Ohio Democratic Party matched Mr. DeWine's ad dollar for dollar with one defending Mr. Brown's security record and slamming the senator's.

Ms. Schultz has stressed Mr. Brown's plans for jobs, health care, and education with rural audiences she says Mr. Kerry ignored. "We define the issues," she said. "We do not let Mike DeWine define the issues. And we certainly don't let Mike De-Wine define who my husband is."

Mr. Strickland's radio ads quote the book of Micah's call to "walk humbly with God."

The tone has drawn comparisons to former President Jimmy Carter, another Democrat who pitched himself as a pious outsider on the campaign trail. Mr. Strickland said he'd like to emulate that approach.

"Jimmy Carter was a person who talked about his beliefs," he said, "but did not do it in a way that was polarizing."

Republicans prefer to compare Mr. Strickland to Mr. Kerry, accusing both of masking liberal records with moderate rhetoric.

Analysts and strategists disagree on whether the axes that fell Mr. Kerry will cut Mr. Brown or Mr. Strickland as sharply this year.

The Ohio Republican Party's political director, Jason Mauk, said key issues haven't changed much since 2004.

A Republican National Committee spokesman, Aaron McClear, said individual candidates, not any national strategy, will decide statewide races this year.

Mark Blumenthal, a Washington pollster working for Ohio's Democratic attorney general candidate, Marc Dann, who faces current state Auditor Betty Montgomery, said the fall election environment "could not be more different" than two years ago. A spokesman for Mr. DeWine, Brian Seitchik, agreed.

"It is clearly not 2004 in Ohio," he said.

The 2006 GOP strategy hit some bumps this week. Mr. DeWine tweaked his TV ad after a magazine discovered his advertising firm altered a World Trade Center image to add smoke.

Mr. Lankford's e-mail to social conservatives linked to a blog entry at pullinsreport.blogspot.com that called Mr. and Mrs. Strickland's relationship "bizarre" and claimed a Blade article about their decision not to have children implies "the Stricklands are both gay."

Mr. Lankford did not respond to an interview request. Until late this week he was listed online as the state director of the Ohio Restoration Project, a faith group whose federal tax-exempt status has been challenged on allegations that it works too closely with Mr. Blackwell's campaign. Ohio GOP officials say he is no longer working for the group, and they repudiated his e-mail.

"We do not engage in rumor or innuendo," Mr. Mauk said, "especially rumors that are not relevant to this election."

Contact Jim Tankersley at: jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-343-5933.



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