Before a national audience, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and Republican challenger John Kasich will take to the podiums in Toledo Thursday night with everything on the line.
Nearly all polls have Mr. Strickland trailing his former congressional colleague even as tightening surveys suggest momentum may be on the governor's side with less a month to go before the Nov. 2 election.
The second gubernatorial debate will take place at 8 p.m. before a ticket-only audience of 150 at the Driscoll Alumni Center on the University of Toledo campus.
The one-hour event is sponsored by the Ohio News Organization, a consortium of the state's eight largest newspapers, including The Blade.
The debate will be televised locally on WTOL, Channel 11 and, in a nod to the national attention this contentious race has been getting, on C-SPAN.
"If we are to believe the drift of the polls, Strickland is catching up or closing the gap, but he is still behind," said John Green, executive director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
"He needs to keep his momentum going," he said. "What seems to be working for him is emphasizing what his administration has done to create jobs, that while there is obviously high unemployment, there is a lot he's done positively. … That would be one way to take the edge off the unemployment numbers."
Mr. Kasich, meanwhile, has a chance to solidify his lead, Mr. Green said.
"People don't know him as well as they know the governor," Mr. Green said. "This is another opportunity to provide positive information to voters. He has to be careful not to make a mistake, but he can't be too cautious. He needs to talk about the alternatives he presents to the current administration and talk about how he would create jobs. That's what people want to hear."
Mr. Kasich arrived in Toledo Wednesday and will spend the day here in preparation for Thursday night's debate.
"He's doing what he did for the last one - mock debates and run-throughs," spokesman Rob Nichols said. "He's taking time to get into his own mind, exactly what one would do to prepare for something like this. We're doing what we need to do to win this race.
"This is another venue to showcase what John has been talking about for the last year and a half: job creation, fixing Ohio's economy, and specific examples of how he'll do it, in sharp contrast to his opponent," he said.
Mr. Nichols isn't saying who has played the part of Mr. Strickland in mock debates. Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, meanwhile, has portrayed Mr. Kasich in Mr. Strickland's preparations.
"Ted will lay out the stark choice that Ohioans face, a choice between Ted's Ohio values and Kasich's Wall Street values," Strickland campaign manager Aaron Pickrell said. "We think there's a lot more at stake for Kasich.
"The last debate - when most Ohioans saw them for the first time side-by-side and saw their comparative visions, heard their ideas for Ohio, and heard them talk about their records - led to a dramatic shift in this race," he said. "The more voters learn about Kasich, the less they like him."
In the first debate, in Columbus on Sept. 14, both candidates largely ducked specifics on how they would close a potential budget gap some have measured as wide as $8 billion in the next two-year budget. They also talked about Mr. Kasich's role as a Columbus manager for the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers investment firm, and Mr. Strickland's claim to have fixed the state's K-12 school funding problems, passenger rail, and Ohio's death penalty.
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