OHIO POLITICS Scandal, conviction add to GOP's angst

The war in Iraq is also spelling trouble for state Republicans.
GROVE CITY, Ohio (AP) -- In November, Ohio was at the center of the national political stage, delivering the White House to President Bush.
Eight months later, the state's Republican Party is reeling: its leader convicted of ethics violations; a narrow win in a gimmie congressional district; an investment scandal that won't go away.
The troubles play out as the casualty rate climbs from the war in Iraq and the state economy remains stuck in a slump. The war could hurt Bush's standing in Ohio, mirroring a decline in his popularity nationally. His overall job approval was at 42 percent in a recent poll, with just 38 percent approving of his handling of Iraq.
Diane McCune, who lives in this solidly GOP Columbus suburb, bucked her Democratic roots twice and voted for President Bush, but now she's having second thoughts.
"I'm not feeling so good," McCune said. "I think we maybe made a mistake putting him in there."
As for Ohio's Gov. Bob Taft, convicted Thursday for not reporting that he was treated to dozens of golf outings, the 50-year-old teacher's aide shook her head. "Taft, I feel, has kind of made a joke out of all of us."
New perspective
Republicans have had a firm grip on Ohio for a decade, controlling the Legislature, all statewide offices and a majority of congressional seats. Not long ago the talk was which of the three GOP candidates would win the primary for governor next year and presumably the job itself.
That talk has changed.
GOP Senate President Bill Harris, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran, said support remains strong for the president and the war. But he acknowledged that the people he represents in small cities and rural areas north of Columbus are concerned about the losses.
"They're saying to me, 'Get this settled, and move forward. We can't continue to let it [the war] drag out,'" Harris said.
After years of slight Democratic gains, the landscape has changed.
"This disastrous development for Taft and the Ohio Republicans opens a great opportunity for the Democrats next year to argue for a complete housecleaning in Columbus," said Alec Lamis, a Case Western Reserve University political scientist.
Hundreds of people lined Grove City streets last week for the funeral procession of Lance Cpl. Eric J. Bernholtz, one of 16 Ohio Marines killed in three attacks in Iraq since July 28.
The funeral was held just down the street from the high school where a marching band feted Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, during a fall campaign appearance.
Earlier this month, Republican Jean Schmidt barely kept the 2nd Congressional seat -- long a GOP freebie -- in Republican hands. Democrat Paul Hackett combined his credentials as an Iraqi war vet with a campaign that repeatedly attacked Bush and labeled his opponent as a "Bob Taft Republican."
Taft's trouble
Now Taft's problems have given Democrats more fodder than they could possibly have wished for.
A scandal that began with a prominent GOP contributor's investment of state money in rare coins has ballooned to include 15 state and federal agencies investigating allegations of risky investments and illegal campaign contributions to Bush.
Taft, the great-grandson of President William Howard Taft, ended up in a courtroom that usually hears theft and traffic cases, concluding one of the most stunning political stumbles in state history. Taft was fined $1,000 for each of four misdemeanor counts.
He fulfilled part of his court-ordered sentence Friday by apologizing via e-mail to all state employees. He already apologized to all of Ohio with a statement to the media.
"It is an embarrassing and sad time for all Ohioans," said state Rep. Chris Redfern, the top-ranking House Democrat in the market for a run for some statewide office.
Democrats for the most part have held off calling for Taft's resignation -- he insists he's staying -- preferring to use his woes and the investment scandal in next year's election. But on Friday, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, became the first to publicly ask Taft to step down.
"We cannot afford one more day in which the governor is preoccupied with these scandals at the expense of a focus on creating jobs, reforming education and moving Ohio forward," Coleman said in a statement.
Five candidates want Taft's job, including Coleman and Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who was criticized for his handling of voting procedures in Ohio's close presidential race.
Coleman, who has a son in the same Ohio-based unit that lost 14 Marines in two days, suggested the war is a ripe issue for Democrats.
"There is a growing sense of opposition to the policies that led us to this war, but also growing support for the warriors," said Coleman, who has twice had to wait for hours to learn of his son's fate following reports of heavy losses.
Lifelong Republican Tim Massaro said he's not ready to change his political allegiance, saying Taft's problems reflect a reality of political behavior. But he acknowledges that support for the war probably has waned.
"Just so many people getting killed, and not finding any weapons of mass destruction," Massaro said.

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