Portman-Strickland debate today on WFMJ-TV may be revealing

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Former Youngstown City Council President John R. Swierz will seek to recapture his old position in the May 2017 Democratic primary. A former longtime 7th Ward councilman, Swierz is the only person to date to announce his candidacy for the position. Council President Charles Sammarone doesn’t plan to run for re-election leaving the seat open.

Taylor Schilling and Kate Mulgrew of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” will headline a fundraiser at 6 p.m. today at The Federal, 10 W. Federal St., in Youngstown, on behalf of the Ohio and Mahoning County Democratic parties. The suggested contribution is $25, with students with college IDs admitted for free.

“Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party,” a movie critical of the Democratic presidential nominee, will be shown at the Mahoning County Republican Party’s headquarters, 8381 Market St., in Boardman at 8 p.m. this Tuesday and Thursday as well as Oct. 25-27 and Nov. 1-3. Admission is free.

With U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, the incumbent Republican, and ex-Gov. Ted Strickland, his Democratic challenger, taking the stage at noon today in the studios of 21 WFMJ-TV for their first debate, now is a good time to take stock of the race.

The debate, co-sponsored by The Vindicator and WFMJ, will allow voters to see the two of them discussing the issues. I will be among the four panelists asking questions.

While much has changed in the last week, the overall picture of what I wrote in my Sept. 16 column largely remains the same. That is: all signs point to Portman winning re-election in a year that wasn’t supposed to be good for incumbent Republican senators in swing states.

A month ago, Portman was up 13.4 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates polling data. That lead is now 14.5 percentage points even with the most recent poll – from CBS News/YouGov having Portman up 11.

Strickland said considering how much money has been spent against him, the campaign is “going very well.” Strickland said the money, largely outside spending from special-interest groups and around $50 million, is the reason he trails Portman.

However, Strickland is largely to blame for his struggles.

When he was up in the polls, he was unable to meet his fundraising projections.

People aren’t enthusiastic about his campaign; not that Portman is Mr. Electricity either, but he doesn’t have to be.

The negative ads have hurt Strickland, but he vowed two months ago that he would turn around the campaign with his own ads. At the time, the polls showed a closer race with Portman ahead by 6.4 percent.

It’s so bad for Strickland that he pulled his TV commercials from every market except Cleveland and Columbus.

Even worse, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Senate Majority PAC canceled $20 million worth of ads on behalf of Strickland. The ones that aired, including the annoying guy on the Segway commercials, were highly negative of Portman, but did nothing to damage his standing in the polls.

The DSCC and Senate Majority took the money that was going to be spent in Ohio and put it into other more competitive Senate races.

Without that much-needed outside money, Strickland is virtually invisible on the airwaves of Ohio.

There’s been only two Democrats elected governor of Ohio in the last 40 years: Dick Celeste and Strickland.

When Celeste was in Youngstown earlier this week, I asked about the Senate race.

He said, “I’d like to see a more competitive race. Ted Strickland has some significant achievements that unfortunately he didn’t get the credit he deserved.”

While it won’t be enough, Strickland’s campaign was handed a lifeline last week when The Washington Post reported on an 11-year-old video in which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who Portman endorsed, made lewd comments and bragged that he could do anything to women because he’s famous.

Trump apologized sort of.

“This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close,” he wrote in a prepared statement last Friday. “I apologize if anyone was offended.”

Initially, Portman said the comments were “offensive and wrong, and he was right to apologize.”

The senator didn’t pull his endorsement even though several other prominent Republicans did after the comments came to light.

In response last Saturday, David Bergstein, Strickland’s campaign spokesman, said, “Everyone in America is disgusted and fed up with Donald Trump, except Sen. Portman. Sen. Portman’s continued support for Trump is equal parts pathetic and offensive.”

Other Democrats also criticized Portman for his response.

About 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Portman sent another statement that said he could “no longer support” Trump. “I continue to believe our country cannot afford a Hillary Clinton presidency. I will be voting for Mike Pence for president.”

Portman didn’t give any indication as to why he changed his mind, and under Ohio law, his vote for Pence won’t count.

So Strickland got his way by having Portman finally withdraw his support of Trump.

Bergstein said: “Just like the typical Washington politician that he is, Sen. Portman is engaging in a desperate and transparent attempt to save his own political skin because he knows that his unabashed record of supporting Trump has put him badly out of step with the values that Ohioans believe in.”

Portman could have handled the situation better, but he finally did what Strickland asked and still got bashed.

I’ve spoke to some local Trump supporters who say Portman’s decision means they won’t vote for him. Other reporters have heard similar reactions.

However, it still won’t be enough to make this a competitive race.

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