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COLUMBUS - "Strickland: Just didn't get the jobs done."
"Does Ohio really need a congressman from Wall Street for governor?"
And, in an unusual move, neither side has yet to air the type of positive biographical ad about its candidate that has traditionally served as the first toe into TV waters.
"The governor is in a close race," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "In difficult conditions, even an incumbent has to go negative. [Gov. Ted]
Strickland was behind when this started. Now he's moved ahead, but it's very close.
"The sad fact of human nature is that positive advertising does not move numbers," he said. "Negative ads can move numbers. …Why waste the money when you already know you're in a cutthroat, down-to-the-wire race?"
Mr. Strickland went negative out of the gate against his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, with what is to date the only commercial directly funded by his Democratic campaign.
"It was a strategic decision based on polling," said Strickland campaign spokesman Lis Smith. "We found that over 60 percent of Ohioans do not know who Congressman Kasich is. Given the high stakes of this election, we felt it was important to inform them about the stark choice that they have to make."
Mr. Kasich's campaign has yet to directly pay for a television ad. But the Republican Governors Association has been only too happy to do it for him, producing ads for TV and the Internet that have slammed the governor for his failure so far to "Turnaround Ohio," as promised in 2006, and hinted at scandal without coming right out and making accusations.
"The reason for going negative has less to do with [defining Mr. Kasich] and more to do with the fact that they have nothing positive to say about themselves," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. "This is an incumbent with 3 1/2 years under his belt who does not want to talk about his own record. All these smears are shifting focus from his own failures."
He declined to comment on the tone of the RGA ads airing on Mr. Kasich's behalf, nor would he promise that Mr. Kasich's first direct foray onto the airwaves will be a positive one.
"Our ads will be appropriate and warranted based on the circumstances on the ground," he said.
In the latest governors association ad, a pair of workers in hard hats discuss the governor while sitting in a truck as rain pours on the windshield. Mr. Kasich is never mentioned.
"Strickland said he'd be the jobs governor," one of the workers says. "Four years. No jobs."
"Worse," adds the other. "Unemployment doubled. Ohio lost 400,000 jobs."
The only ad funded directly by the Strickland campaign targets Mr. Kasich for his congressional support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which organized labor partly blames for Ohio's heavy loss of manufacturing jobs, and for his subsequent role as a Columbus-based manager for Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers before its collapse in September, 2008.
Meanwhile, labor unions and the Democratic Governors Association have come to Mr. Strickland's aid with ads that also go after Mr. Kasich.
"John Kasich got rich while Ohio seniors lost millions," says one ad, referring to pension fund losses tied to Lehman Brothers' collapse.
Ohio's race for governor is getting national attention like few others. President Obama must make a stand in 2012 in this recession-weary battleground state if he hopes to hold onto the White House, and so far Mr. Strickland has bucked the national trend, in that the bottom has not dropped out from under his feet.
But neither has the former Democratic congressman pulled away in the polls from Mr. Kasich, a former Fox News political pundit and author who has struggled to establish momentum.
The most recent Ohio Poll of likely voters, released in late May by the University of Cincinnati, had Mr. Strickland with 49 percent of the vote to Mr. Kasich's 45 percent. That's still within the poll's margin of error, essentially making the race a statistical tie.
There are 24 open governorships on the ballot this year, but Mr. Sabato said Ohio is being watched closely along with a handful of others - California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois - for signs of what's to come in 2012.
"Everybody understands that Ohio has been a key swing state," he said. "What happens in Ohio affects the whole."
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With promises that it's only going to get nastier, the forces behind the two major candidates for Ohio governor have aggressively taken to the television airwaves to define each other.