COLUMBUS, Ohio, Feb. 26 -- Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary in Ohio, a major and perhaps decisive test of John Edwards's ability to block John F. Kerry's path to nomination, is taking place against a background of unmatched political futility -- and remarkably high hopes that the party's long losing streak may end in November.
With the single exception of President Bill Clinton's reelection win in 1996, Ohio Democrats have gone zero-for-everything over the past 12 years. Republicans control the governorship and every other elected office in the executive branch, both U.S. Senate seats, 12 of 18 U.S. House seats, and both chambers of the legislature.
But with Republicans and President Bush getting the blame for a recession that stubbornly lingers and for the loss of more than a quarter-million jobs in the past three years, Democrats say they have a better-than-even chance to switch Ohio's 20 electoral votes in November and deal a major blow to Bush's reelection chances.
Democratic front-runner Kerry and his main rival, Edwards, have been pounding on economic issues as they have campaigned in union halls, black churches and college auditoriums and posed in front of long-abandoned factories during the week. The latest public poll gives Kerry a lead of 47 percent to 26 percent, but few think the senator from Massachusetts will win by that much, and some see a possibility of an upset. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich is trailing badly even in his Cleveland home base, and Al Sharpton is not on the ballot.
State Democratic Chairman Dennis L. White said Thursday: "The primary is wide open. Kerry's lead could disappear real fast."
William A. Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Kerry, said that "I know Edwards is striking a chord" with his reiterated claim that Kerry's vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement contributed to the loss of manufacturing jobs. Burga said, "The gap will close by Tuesday."
Jim Ruvolo, head of Kerry's campaign in the state, said he thinks Kerry has blunted the attack by promising to put a labor representative at the table in trade talks and pledging to demand tougher worker and environmental protections. Ruvolo, however, conceded: "The polling numbers are too good. . . . But we're at the point in this race where winning is the only thing that counts. Edwards can't stop Kerry by finishing second."
Ohio could be the key to keeping Edwards's challenge going. He has scheduled a return visit to Cleveland this weekend, including a meeting with the editorial board of the Plain Dealer, the state's largest newspaper, which will publish its endorsement Monday. A similar timetable produced a last-minute endorsement for Edwards from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and his big vote in its circulation area helped boost him to a surprisingly close second in Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
Kerry, well aware of that pattern, decided Thursday to make one more appearance in Ohio on Monday.
However intense the campaigning for the primary, far more effort will go into the November election, because both sides know no Republican has won the White House without Ohio's votes.
The Ohio Poll, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, reported last week that for the first time in his presidency, Bush's job approval rating in the state fell below 50 percent. The 49 percent overall rating was reinforced by even lower scores on major issues, with 47 percent approving of his conduct of foreign affairs and 40 percent backing his handling of the economy.
Gov. Bob Taft, chairman of Bush's state reelection campaign, said in an interview that this "will be a very tough state" for the president. "It's a must-win state, but I've never believed it would be an easy one."
That view is echoed by JoAnn Davidson, regional manager of the Bush campaign in Ohio and three neighboring states. And that, she said, is why organizing efforts for Bush began last July and a professionally staffed election headquarters will open here Monday. She pointed out that in 2000, Bush won only 50 percent of the vote, even though Al Gore had pulled out his staff and canceled ads six weeks before Election Day in the mistaken belief he had no chance.
Joe Hallett, political editor of the Columbus Dispatch, wrote in July 2001 that in 2004, "Bush could have trouble" repeating his 3.6-percentage-point victory, in part because post-election surveys found that an anti-Clinton backlash, from the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, had artificially boosted Bush's vote in small-town and rural Ohio. That is not likely to linger, Hallett wrote. He also noted a significant swing from Clinton in 1996 to Bush in the 14-county Appalachian area of southeastern Ohio, and he predicted that chronic economic problems there would probably turn those voters back to the Democrats in 2004.
Rep. Ted Strickland (D), who represents that area, said: "There is a dissatisfaction and anger with this administration I haven't witnessed since I don't know when. Unemployment and health care are huge concerns. The veterans are angry with their treatment. . . . The economy and the war have made it easy for me to be very critical of the president."
Similar comments come from other Democrats in the congressional delegation, and White, the party chairman, said the prospect of defeating Bush "has created excitement we haven't felt for years."
Rep. Rob Portman of Cincinnati, a Bush favorite, said businessmen and bankers he has met with are hopeful the economy will improve this spring, but he conceded, "If it doesn't turn, it's a problem."
The Bush strategy, he said, is to emphasize programs "to prepare people for the new economy," including basic education improvements and more job training, tax relief for small business, and such measures as liability reform and health care cost containment to help make America more competitive. He also pointed out that Democratic attacks on NAFTA could backfire in a state whose exports have doubled in the past decade.
Any improvement, Portman added, is likely to be gradual.
Meantime, the state government Web site that posts "warning notices" of publicly announced layoffs Thursday carried an ominous roll call of job losses still to come: 458 at Rubbermaid in Wooster on March 13; 270 at Georgia-Pacific in Sandusky on April 2; on down to 64 at RMI Environmental Services in Ashtabula on March 31 -- in all, 15 firms and 2,567 jobs.
The late James A. Rhodes, the most successful politician in modern Ohio history and a four-term GOP governor, liked to say, "There are only three issues in Ohio -- jobs, jobs and jobs." If he was right, this state will be a battleground -- and a real test for the president -- this fall.