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Published: Friday, 1/16/2009

Ohio GOP set to pick leader


COLUMBUS - The Ohio Republican Party is picking a new chairman at a time when the coalition of moderate and social conservative voters that has supported the GOP for decades is straining under the pressure of multiple election losses.

Kevin DeWine, a former state representative from Fairborn and current deputy chairman of the party, is set to become chairman in a party election today.

He fueled tension immediately after Republicans took a shellacking in the Nov. 4 election. The party's fixation on divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, he said, had distracted from the message that dominated the 2008 election season: fixing a faltering economy.

Social conservative voters - the same people credited with giving President Bush his second term in office by clinching Ohio - felt spurned.

Managing this tension will be one of Mr. DeWine's greatest tasks as he tries to restore the GOP to primacy in time for the 2010 election.

"I think they're right to question what role social conservatives have," said Grant Neeley, a political science professor at the University of Dayton. "There's a recognition now that they may not have a good hold on the middle of voters."

Social conservative voters have heard enough about expanding the tent. Contrary to popular opinion that drawing lines in the sand about social issues drives away vital middle-of-the-road voters, social conservatives believe it is the pursuit of the "mushy middle" that has hurt the party the most.

"These types of statements only serve to muddy and blur even more the differences between ourselves and our opponents and make us appear to be unprincipled," said Steve Guendert, a lifetime member of the Republican National Committee who served as Franklin County chairman of Veterans for John McCain.

Mr. Guendert was bothered by Mr. DeWine's comments.

An initial test of the party's focus could come in the form of the state's budget crisis. Gambling interests have approached lawmakers and Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, with a proposal that would boost state revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The GOP will have to formulate a stance on whether gambling is good for the economy and budget, or whether it's bad for moral values.

Mr. DeWine said yesterday that he spent time talking to social conservatives and members of the state GOP Central Committee after his comments last fall about divisive social issues.

"We've dealt with this as a party," Mr. DeWine said.

State senator and former House Speaker Jon Husted, a Republican from Kettering, said Mr. DeWine would unite the party and find common ground among diverse viewpoints.

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