CINCINNATI - As shootouts go, it was no OK Corral. But Republican Ken Blackwell and Democrat Ted Strickland traded bullets on the economy - and each other's resemblances to famous movie cowboys - in prime time last night.
Ohio's leading gubernatorial candidates dueled in a live-broadcast, economy-themed debate at the University of Cincinnati, which featured more new attacks than public policy details.
Mr. Strickland, a congressman from Lisbon, Ohio, and Mr. Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, maintained even tones throughout the hour, as they have in two previous debates. For the first time, they managed to draw a couple of laughs from the crowd on hand.
Still, the urgency was clear. Polls show Mr. Strickland leading the race by double digits, and reports filed yesterday showed the congressman widened his fund-raising lead by another $1.5 million in September.
With barely a month left to change the tide in the race, Mr. Blackwell accused Mr. Strickland of failing to help his congressional district, which Mr. Blackwell called the poorest in the country, and of offering plans that would take "a generation" to boost Ohio's economy.
He touted his own plans to reduce business regulation, curb some lawsuit awards, accelerate tax cuts, and move toward a flat tax in his first 100 days in office.
"We want action now," Mr. Blackwell said, adding later: "If he can't turn around his district, how can he turn around Ohio?"
Mr. Strickland called the flat tax plan a "nutty idea" and challenged Mr. Blackwell to say how he'd pay for it. He said the plan would shift tax burdens from wealthy Ohioans to "the struggling middle class."
Pushed repeatedly by questioners and Mr. Blackwell to say how he would help the state economy right away, Mr. Strickland stressed "investing" in education and worker training, spreading economic development dollars further across the state, and spending $250 million on what he called job-creating alternative energy research.
Mr. Blackwell said his experience creating 300 jobs - as a partner in a radio venture - better qualified him to understand business needs. He said Mr. Strickland, who has a doctorate in psychology, preferred to give Ohio's economy "therapeutic tinkering" and called him a "blank slate" with an "empty briefcase" of policies.
Mr. Strickland drew the second laugh of the night with his response: "I'm trying to write down all the terms that my opponent has used to describe me tonight," he said, "and I'm running out of paper."
The first laugh came when Mr. Blackwell tried to turn Mr. Strickland's roots against him. Mr. Blackwell noted that Mr. Strickland likes to talk about growing up along Duck Run, a rural road in southeast Ohio which was also the home of TV's most famous singing cowboy.
I knew Roy Rogers, Mr. Blackwell told Mr. Strickland, echoing the famed you're-no-Jack-Kennedy line of the 1988 vice presidential debate, "and you're no Roy Rogers."
Mr. Strickland won the laugh by invoking another Hollywood western star and Republican icon. "I, too, knew Roy Rogers," Mr. Strickland said. "I also knew Ronald Reagan. And you, sir, are no Ronald Reagan."
The candidates are scheduled for a fourth debate in Columbus, but its status is unclear as the campaigns search for a sponsor.
Mr. Blackwell was asked last night if he did enough in this debate to change the momentum of the race. He said he'd left no doubt for "any common-sense thinking Ohioan" that Mr. Strickland wouldn't do anything for the state's economy "in his first 100 days or even his first year."
Mr. Strickland was asked the same question: He said he found Mr. Blackwell's performance "fairly redundant."
"I don't know," if it swayed voters," Mr. Strickland said. "I guess we'll just have to see what the reaction is."
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