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Florida revisited: Ohio faces the same issues

The presidential race is close, voting rules have led to arguments and the secretary of state is controversial.

Published October 28, 2004

VIENNA, Ohio - It felt like Florida when President Bush landed in Ohio on Wednesday. The weather was balmy, the rhetoric hot.

Ohio has become a mirror image of the Sunshine State. The presidential race is a dead heat, the parties are arguing about voting rules and the candidates are scrambling for every vote.

Even the players seem familiar. Ken Blackwell, Ohio's Republican secretary of state, has been likened to his Florida counterpart, Glenda Hood. Democrats have cried foul at his decisions on voting rules, but Blackwell has said he is being fair.

On Wednesday, Bush spoke at an airport rally near Youngstown, Ohio, and tried to win Democratic voters.

Citing Presidents Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt, Bush said, "The Democratic Party has a great tradition of leading this country with strength and conviction in times of war." He also praised President Kennedy.

Bush said many Democrats "look at my opponent and wonder where that great tradition of their party has gone."

But Bush's tone may have been off-putting. He referred to the "Democrat Party," a term that many in the party find derisive.

This part of Ohio is Democratic turf. Bush lost the area to Al Gore by a 36 to 60 margin. Bush is trying to peel away a small number of Democrats that could make a difference in a close election.

Like Florida, Ohio is considered a crucial state. No Republican has won the presidency without winning the Buckeye state.

The race for Ohio's 20 electoral votes is close. The latest polls show Kerry slightly ahead, but the numbers are within the margin of error.

Both sides are mounting massive efforts to get supporters to vote. Kerry's campaign has been aided by independent liberal groups, including America Coming Together, which has 320 paid staffers in Ohio. ACT has identified hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters and will be contacting them in the next few days to make sure they go to the polls Tuesday.

"I think Democratic turnout this year is going to be unprecedented," said Jess Goode, an ACT spokesman. "I've never seen anything like the energy I've seen this year."

The Bush strategy relies primarily on 80,000 volunteers.

Randy Law, a Republican candidate for Ohio state representative, said the volunteers are more effective than paid staffers because they are more enthusiastic. "That's the difference - we're going to win from the heart," he said.

Like Florida, the parties in Ohio have been fighting about ballot issues.

Democrats say rulings by Blackwell, who co-chairs the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio, have favored the GOP. He initially required voter registration forms on card stock rather than paper, which probably would have disqualified more Democratic than Republican voters. He also said that when there are doubts about a voter's registration, they can cast a provisional ballot only when they are at the correct polling place. Democrats have appealed.

Yet Blackwell also helped Democrats by ruling that Ralph Nader had not collected enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The economy has been a key issue for many Ohio voters this year because of plant closings and a loss of manufacturing jobs. The state's unemployment rate is 6 percent; the national average is 5.4 percent. Kerry has said Bush is responsible for some of the lost jobs because his policies encourage companies to take jobs overseas.

But Law, the candidate for state representative, said Democrats in the Youngstown area look beyond economic issues and are willing to vote for Bush because they are progun and antiabortion.

"We're not going to carry this area," he said. "But we're going to deliver a lot of votes."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 00:44:17]

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