U.S.SENATE RACE Ohio's DeWine faces tough battle as Dems pounce on GOP's woes

COLUMBUS -- Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, wants you to know he is not President Bush, whose popularity has plummeted.
Nor is he Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who was fined for taking unreported gifts.
Or Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, who is under indictment.
Or Ohio Rep. Robert W. Ney, who is under investigation.
Yet the well-publicized troubles of DeWine's GOP colleagues are becoming one of the biggest obstacles to his election to a third term in November against an energized Democratic opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown, and his long-thwarted party that smells a chance to paint red-state Ohio a shade of blue.
"Look, it's a tough climate," said DeWine, a battle-tested campaigner who remains undeterred. "My experience is that Ohio voters are fiercely independent. They make decisions on their own. They look at the candidates. That's been the history in Ohio, and I see no reason this election will be any different."
The race is expected to be among the most competitive in the nation, and its outcome will help determine whether the Republicans can retain their current 55-to-45-seat majority. Thirty-three Senate seats are up for grabs this year, including 15 held by the GOP and 18 in Democratic hands. Political analysts agree that the Democrats face an uphill battle to regain control of the Senate, but that DeWine's seat offers an inviting target because of his party's woes.
Brown's race
For his part, Brown is staking his seven terms in the House on becoming the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Ohio since 1992. The state, which narrowly put Bush over the top in the 2004 election, is dominated by Republicans who control the Legislature and have occupied the governor's office for 15 years.
And that, Brown and his fellow Democrats believe, is a blessing for them.
Polls show voter frustration with political corruption, a faltering economy and an Iraq war that has hit Ohio particularly hard. Brown, a staunch liberal Democrat and one-time boy wonder of Ohio politics who was first elected to the state Legislature when he was 21, tells audiences that DeWine shares responsibility for a federal government that has "betrayed its public trust."
"This is a chance to change the direction of the state and the country," Brown, 53, said during an interview at his Avon home. "It can show a progressive Democrat can win in a state like Ohio. It's going to show that in 2008, there's a very different political dynamic in this country."
In a campaign year that could say much about Ohio's political identity, the November ballot features a governor's race and the largest concentration of competitive House races of any state. Daniel Hoffheimer, a Cincinnati lawyer and a Kerry-Edwards '04 campaign legal adviser, described DeWine as honest but vulnerable in a state where Democrats are eager for an upset.
"I've long believed Ohio is a Democratic state that's been asleep," Hoffheimer said. "If anything's going to wake up the people, it's to look at what the Republicans have done when they've had the opportunity to be in power in Columbus and Washington."
Both Senate candidates face minor opponents in a May 2 primary. Brown avoided a challenge when Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett dropped out of the race.
Biggest problem
Jennifer Duffy, who studies Senate races for the Washington-based Cook Political Report, considers the Senate race a tossup. She said DeWine's biggest problem is the growing unpopularity of Republican-led government in Ohio and Washington.
But with DeWine's campaign working to portray Brown as too liberal, she believes that some of Brown's votes will hurt him. He voted against the USA Patriot Act and opposed bans on gay marriage and late-term abortion; he voted before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to cut intelligence spending.
She also thinks Brown may have a difficult time defining DeWine as a Republican worthy of alarm. DeWine is a moderate Republican who has worked well with Democrats, sometimes to the dismay of conservatives in his own party. He is also a strong campaigner who won his last election with 60 percent of the vote.
"When you look at DeWine's record, I don't see a lot of vulnerabilities there," Duffy said. "He's an incumbent with accomplishments. He focuses on some very consumer-friendly things. He's very big on child safety. His contribution to the highway bill was a requirement that manufacturers put their safety test ratings on the sticker."
Solving problems
DeWine, 59, has portrayed himself as a problem-solver able to work with Democrats, pointing out that he worked with liberal senators Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to regulate children's medicine. He was also among a bipartisan group of 14 senators who crafted a compromise on judicial nominations procedures.
"I've spent 11 years getting things done. We are a state that's a pragmatic state," DeWine said in a telephone interview, avoiding any mention of Brown.
Brown's take on DeWine, elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1994, was more direct.
"He voted for the Iraq war. I voted against the Iraq war," Brown told a gathering of more than 200 cheering Democrats in the town of Solon on Wednesday. He said he opposed Medicare privatization and the energy bill, in contrast to DeWine. Then he noted DeWine's more recent votes favoring a minimum wage bill and opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"He's almost become a Massachusetts Democrat!" Brown said. "He's gotten religion. He's also got a tough race on his hands."
Bush flew to Ohio for a fund-raiser that added $1 million to DeWine's growing treasury, but DeWine did not hurry to Cleveland last week to share the spotlight when the president delivered a speech there on Iraq. He said Bush was right to topple Saddam Hussein but asserted that the administration has since made "major mistakes," including sending too few troops to secure the country.
Bad times
Since the war began, 105 service members from Ohio have died in Iraq. The state has lost more than 175,000 manufacturing jobs this decade. At a time when anger about government corruption is growing, Taft -- whose approval rating stands at 15 percent -- pleaded no contest to accepting 52 secret gifts from friends and associates, including local Republican Party leader Tom Noe.
In a case that is still unfolding, Noe is suspected of swindling the state workers compensation fund. His lawyer said $11 million is missing. A grand jury also charged him with illegally funneling $45,400 to Bush's re-election campaign. Members of Taft's staff have admitted borrowing money from Noe or using his Florida Keys vacation home.
After the scandal broke, DeWine donated $8,000 in Noe campaign contributions to children's hospitals.
Ney, who represents central Ohio, is suspected of performing official actions in return for favors -- including a golf trip to Scotland, meals and sports tickets -- from former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an associate. Abramoff and the associate, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty to federal charges. Ney denies doing anything improper.
"It's really the environment that gives DeWine a problem," said one Republican adviser in Ohio who asked not to be identified. "Ohioans have not been happy for a long time with the direction of the state, and they're not happy with the direction of the country, either."
Ideal voter?
Richard Urbansky, who works behind the counter at Medina Auto Parts, is the kind of voter both sides will court. He described the Senate race as a "tough call" and said he is waiting for the candidates to define themselves publicly.
"The economy around here is scary," said Urbansky, 49, mentioning Ford Motor Co.'s closing of its plant in nearby Lorain. "Health care. It has gone up. The war. We can't stay there forever. Get it finished and get out."
DeWine has no illusions.
"When I first ran for office," DeWine said, "I beat a Democratic incumbent for county prosecutor. I came back in 1980, and I beat a Democratic incumbent state senator. When I ran in 1994 for Senate, I had a three-way Republican primary where I was outspent by a million dollars. I've had tough races."

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