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AUSTINTOWN, Ohio - The girls swooned for Adam Brody. The banners plugged Sherrod Brown. But the nearly 1,000 people in the Fitch High School auditorium yesterday saved their longest, loudest ovations for the woman who has become the Ohio Democratic Party's most lucrative warm-up act.
Hillary Clinton had them on their feet before word No. 1. In the middle of sentence No. 2, she drew her first "Hillary for president!" shout, which, like all the rest, she ignored.
By the end of her speech introducing U.S. Rep. Brown, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Cedarville) this fall, Mrs. Clinton was conducting the crowd in an auditorium-shaking indictment of the Bush Administration.
"We didn't sign up for this huge debt," the senator from New York said, and the cheers began to mount. "We didn't sign up for a war in Iraq that has been marred by strategic blunders and mistake after mistake. We didn't sign up for taking our eye off [Osama] bin Laden in Afghanistan and diverting resources away from that. We didn't sign up for a government that couldn't rescue Americans when a hurricane struck along our Gulf Coast."
Applause swallowed her last three lines.
Potential presidential contenders have lent fund-raising muscle to both parties' Ohio tickets this year. The Republican list includes U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani - along with President Bush, who has raised at least $4.5 million here on his own.
The Democratic list includes New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
Ohio Democrats say none of them approach Mrs. Clinton, who has raised nearly $500,000 in New York and Ohio for Mr. Brown and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the party nominee for governor. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, raked in $225,000 for Mr. Strickland.
Campaign officials said Mrs. Clinton has raised or donated $14 million for Democratic candidates nationwide in the last two years.
"Hillary and Bill Clinton are the only rock stars we have" as Democrats, said Jim Ruvolo, a party strategist and former Ohio Democratic chairman. "They can raise money because of who they are That doesn't necessarily mean she's running, but if she does, she's got a lot of IOUs to call in."
Presidential questions dog every Clinton event. Others at the suburban Youngstown rally yesterday - including Mr. Brown of Avon and Mr. Brody, a star of the Fox hit The O.C. - noted Ohio's looming swing status for 2008. Mrs. Clinton said she was more focused on this year.
In an interview with The Blade, Mrs. Clinton said, "It's better for New York and it's better for America if we get a Democratic majority back in [Congress] to restore checks and balances and to prevent this President and vice president from taking such radical positions."
Ohio Democrats welcome her help. Mr. Strickland calls Mrs. Clinton a friend dating back to her push for national health care as first lady.
Mr. Brown told the Austintown crowd that he appreciates Mrs. Clinton's campaign advice.
"She just gets it about what people think and the direction this country needs to go," Mr. Brown said.
Republicans are more critical. State GOP spokesman John McClelland called Mrs. Clinton "everybody's favorite liberal" yesterday and accused Mr. Brown of being "left of Hillary."
Not all Democrats are sold, either. Several party insiders in Ohio say privately they fear Mrs. Clinton is too polarizing to win a general election. Neither Mr. Strickland nor Mr. Brown has endorsed a 2008 candidate yet.
In Austintown, Mrs. Clinton dropped names down to the bishop who led the invocation, praised Mr. Brown for "fighting for 30 years for social and economic justice," and borrowed his line about protecting Americans "who play by the rules," and clapped through Mr. Brown's speech even when he blasted Mr. DeWine for voting to authorize the Iraq war - a vote Mrs. Clinton also made.
In the speech and the ensuing interview, Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Bush and Republican leaders on several issues, including:
•Balancing the budget: "We've got to get back to Clinton economic policies. You know, when my husband left office, we had a balanced budget and a surplus. It didn't take long for the Republicans to basically take a wrecking ball to that ... We've got to cut spending, and we've got to begin to move back to sensible, affordable tax policies."
•International trade, a key focus of Mr. Brown's campaign: "I believe in smart trade, and I believe we're not doing enough of that. The Bush Administration hasn't enforced the trade agreements that we've been entering into Our primary obligation is to maintain the standard of living and quality of life of American workers and citizens, and I agree with Sherrod that we've got to think differently about how to do that."
•Iraq: "I certainly have been appalled at the way [Republicans] have conducted this war they were determined to wage. The Democrats are united in our belief that you can't continue to do more of the same, which is the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld strategy. We need a new strategy to send a very clear message to the Iraqi government that we're not going to be there propping them up, and we'll begin a phased redeployment of our troops to underscore that."
Mrs. Clinton did not talk about the White House, but Mr. Ruvolo said she will get her chance soon enough.
"On Nov. 8," he said, "2008 starts. Then it's a different ballgame."
Contact Jim Tankersley at: