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NILES, Ohio - With a week left before the election, Gov. Ted Strickland mined for votes Tuesday in traditional Democratic territory, with inner-city African-Americans, and the not so traditional, with gun-rights activists.
In between, the governor met privately with Cleveland ministers, employing a little of his own "elbow in the pew'' strategy that his Republican opponent, John Kasich, has encouraged among his supporters on the campaign trail.
In two events before predominantly black audiences in Cleveland, the Democratic governor tied his fate on Tuesday to the 2012 re-election chances of President Obama.
"Really, this is a test for President Obama in the next two years,'' Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told Democratic volunteers in the industrial Cleveland neighborhood of Harvard.
"If we lose Ohio, we're going to have a very difficult time keeping the White House,'' he said.
The latest Quinnipiac Poll released Tuesday had Mr. Kasich leading Mr. Strickland by 6 percentage points, 49 percent to 43 percent, among "likely voters,'' tighter than the 10-point gap Quinnipiac reported last week.
Mr. Strickland, however, said his campaign's internal polls have the governor up by 2 points.
"Two points is nothing,'' he told about 150 people crowded into the Carl B. Stokes Center, part of a human-services complex operated by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority near downtown Cleveland.
"It's a dead heat,'' Mr. Strickland said. "They're after me, but the person they're really after is Barack Obama.''
Republicans won't give him an argument there.
On a bus tour that includes Mr. Kasich, U.S. Senate candidate Rob Portman, and other statewide GOP candidates, Mr. Obama's name is often mentioned more than Mr. Strickland's. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine has said the defeat of Mr. Strickland next week would make Ohio the "the Barack Obama firewall'' for 2012.
Vanessa Brickus, an African-American volunteer for Democrats in Harvard, said many of the local volunteers see this election as more about Mr. Obama than Mr. Strickland.
"In order for Obama to get back in, they really need that Democratic support,'' she said. "It's important that we get [Ohio Democrats] back in, in order to get Obama back in. We've had 20 years' reign of the Republican Party - 20 years - and everybody's criticizing Democrats when we haven't given them a chance. They're critical and disappointed … but they don't realize that [Mr. Obama] has 20 years to clean up in four.''
Mr. Obama will return to Ohio for the 12th time for a rally for Mr. Strickland at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University at 1 p.m. Sunday, conveniently coinciding with extended early voting hours at the nearby Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
Vice President Joe Biden will join him for that rally. Later that afternoon or early evening, Mr. Biden will headline another event in Toledo. Former President Bill Clinton is planning to attend rallies in Columbus, Canton, and Boardman on Saturday.
Mr. Strickland and his running mate, Yvette McGee Brown, spent nearly an hour taking questions at the Carl B. Stokes Center from public-housing residents, including some demanding more public-housing assistance and targeted funds to the center for job training.
Ms. Brown drew the biggest applause of the afternoon when she turned them down.
"We're going into a tough budget in 2011, and we're going to have to make some tough decisions,'' she said. " … But we're not going to stand here and give you blanket promises that in two years you'll come back and tell us we didn't keep. I'm giving you a real answer.''
At times, Mr. Strickland sounded conciliatory.
"I'm not a perfect person, and I haven't been a perfect governor,'' the former Methodist minister said.
"As far as I know there's only been one person that's been perfect who has walked the face of this Earth. But I tell you this. I do the best that I know how to do,'' he said.
Later, Mr. Strickland traveled through severe weather to remind about 30 sportsmen at the Western Reserve Fish and Gun Club in Niles that he, not Mr. Kasich, has the backing of the National Rifle Association. There was no talk of President Obama on this stop.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Kasich repeatedly reminds crowds that he owns a gun to assure them that he is pro-Second Amendment. His campaign has filed a complaint against Strickland ads that remind voters of Mr. Kasich's "F'' rating by the NRA for the 1993 vote he cast for President Bill Clinton's assault weapons ban.
Mr. Kasich's current grade is "B'' and Mr. Strickland's is "A-plus.''
"Mr. Kasich shot himself in the foot in the past and has been working hard to rehabilitate himself,'' said Jerry Usselman, of the Trumbull County Federation of Sportsman's Clubs, which includes the Niles club.
"I know Ted Strickland has signed a lot of legislation our other governor wouldn't even look at,'' Mr. Usselman said.
That includes bills loosening restrictions in Ohio's concealed-carry law and the so-called Castle Doctrine, which gives the legal benefit of the doubt to homeowners when they shoot intruders.
Mr. Strickland hopes the endorsement will blunt Mr. Kasich's support in rural Ohio.
But he insisted Tuesday night that it doesn't make him a gun-lobby lapdog.
"I will vote for what's best for Ohio and what is consistent with the constitution of our nation, and that is what's consistent with what the NRA supports,'' he said.
Contact Jim Provance at:
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