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GOP Hopes Local Turmoil Won't Hurt Bush

"There's always game playing in politics," Householder said. He described Buerck and Sisk as aggressive and shrewd and said they helped him add to the Republican majority.

The two would have been shrewder still if they had refrained from putting their most mischievous thoughts in writing.

The low standing of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, left, limits his ability to serve as a political surrogate for President Bush. Taft has seen his approval rating dip because of the state's lagging economy and a sales tax increase he approved. (Doug Mills -- AP)

About the Series

This occasional series on the presidential election in Ohio, which both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have identified as a critical swing state, examines the evolving strategies and techniques for motivating supporters and persuading uncommitted voters in an age of deep partisan divides.

_____More From Series_____
Taking the Campaign to the People, One Doorstep at a Time (The Washington Post, Apr 18, 2004)
In Ohio, Building a Political Echo (The Washington Post, May 12, 2004)
Jobs Loss May Affect Who Wins The Vote (The Washington Post, Jun 1, 2004)
Parties Square Off In a Database Duel (The Washington Post, Jul 20, 2004)
_____Battleground Ohio_____
Video: Malta, Ohio, residents cope with high unemployment in a struggle to maintain their small-town way of life. (First in a four-part series.)
Wanted: A Candidate to Defend Financial Future and Way of Life (washingtonpost.com, May 5, 2004)

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Instead, Ohio newspapers have thrilled in reporting memos and e-mails in which members of "Team Householder" plotted strategy in decidedly cynical tones, boasted about political "empire-building" within state government, schemed about hitting up corporations and individuals for cash, and had all manner of disparaging words for fellow Republicans, including Taft.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer described how Buerck, a former chief of staff for Householder, and another consultant tried to win support among the House GOP caucus, one of their clients, for the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, another of their clients, in an effort to defeat litigation revision. They prepared a chart dividing House Republicans -- most of whom, like Republicans elsewhere, support curbs on lawsuits -- into groups such as "Senate wannabes," "party boys" and, to describe female members, "the broad squad."

Another internal memo proposed a way to undermine Blackwell, who has taken the lead in trying to repeal the recently approved sales tax increase. The memo, written by Householder's press secretary with help from Buerck and Sisk, suggested "a group funded by anonymous donors whose sole charge is to drive Ken Blackwell's negatives through the roof, either through broadcast advertising or targeted mail to hard-core conservatives."

The Plain Dealer also reported a memo in which Buerck told one client running for local office that he needed to embrace the "dark side of the race" and proposed "guerrilla warfare" in order to funnel corporate money surreptitiously into the election.

These disclosures may be titillating, but no analysts of Ohio politics think they will be a large factor in the presidential vote. The problem for Republicans is that something need not be a large factor this year to be a pivotal one. As Taft put in a recent interview, "Ohio may be this year's Florida. This will be too close to call until November 2nd," he said. "I don't think there's any state that's going to be as closely divided."

In a survey last week by the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) led Bush among likely voters 48 to 46 percent, with independent Ralph Nader garnering 1 percent. A Gallup poll in Ohio also showed a two-point spread favoring Kerry, but when the pool of respondents was expanded to include all registered voters, not just people who voted last time, Kerry was ahead by 10 points.

In such an environment, in which Democrats are eager to stoke grievance wherever they can, the Kerry campaign said it is ready to point to the mess in Columbus as evidence that a shake-up is needed across the board. Kerry state chairman James Ruvolo said the scandal "just fuels voters' desire for change."

Robert T. Bennett, the Ohio Republican chairman who over the past 17 years has helped lead the GOP to majority status -- the party controls the legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and every statewide office -- dismissed such suggestions as bluster. Of the fundraising controversy and his party's intramural battling among would-be gubernatorial candidates, he said, "I don't dismiss it as a problem for the Republican Party, but I don't think it is going to be any factor in the presidential race."

Eric W. Rademacher, head of the Ohio Poll, agreed. Disarray among statehouse Republicans might have mattered at the margins in past elections, but not in a year such as this, when people are engaged and hold strong opinions on the Bush-Kerry race. His poll found just 4 percent of voters undecided. He did warn that the problems of Ohio Republicans present a major opportunity for Democrats to end their long dry spell in the next statewide elections in 2006. Those elections may bring to the surface personality and ideological conflicts that have been building for years.

Historically, Ohio Republicans have been a bottom-line party -- sympathetic to business and undeniably conservative, but more pragmatic in style. But there are efforts to move the party in a more ideological direction. Cultural conservatives are trying to gather enough petitions -- and are widely expected to succeed -- to put a referendum on this fall's ballot that would ban same-sex marriage and even civil unions.

Blackwell, who as an African American is a rare breed of conservative Republican, is courting support on the party's rightward flank with anti-tax and anti-gay rights messages. His rivals within the party to succeed Taft are state Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery. Householder, who harbored long-term gubernatorial ambitions of his own, had been backing Petro -- a subtext for his rivalry with Blackwell.

Part of a Dynasty

In the background of all this elbow-throwing is Taft. A mild-mannered, genial chief executive in his second term, Taft's claim to fame outside Ohio is his last name. Taft comes from the second-most-notable Republican dynasty in American politics -- with a lineage that goes back significantly further than the Bush name. His great-grandfather was President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft; his grandfather was Sen. Robert Taft, the "Mr. Republican" who defined midwestern, isolationist conservatism for decades in the mid-20th century. His father also served in the U.S. Senate, though the dynasty may be nearing its end. The governor said his daughter, in her twenties, has no interest in elective politics.

Taft said he is close to former president George H.W. Bush and graduated from Yale five years ahead of the current president. He is a pragmatic moderate in the old style of Ohio Republicans, but this understated style has not kept him out of trouble in recent years. His approval rating last year sank to 40 percent or lower; in an Ohio Poll earlier this year it had inched back up to 47 percent -- still not good enough to make him much of a drawing card on Bush's behalf.

Taft said that after making spending cuts, he had no choice during Ohio's recent slowdown but to accede to a temporary sales tax increase unless he was to cut education and other services, which he believes would have been shortsighted. "It's not secret you're not going to be popular as governor in tough times," he said. "I don't think this presidential election will be a referendum on my performance."

One thing that has never shadowed his performance is ethical corner-cutting of the sort that has been alleged against Team Householder.

Alex R. Arshinkoff, chairman of the Akron-area Summit County Republicans, said that he believes that Bush has a tough race in Ohio but that the problems in Columbus are a small or negligible factor. Still, he suggested those problems are a reminder that political power has a natural life cycle, in which complacency and arrogance can spell doom. "Here were kids who never knew losing," he said, "who never knew what it was to be the out party."

Samuel B. Weiner, an attorney for Sisk, urged people not to rush to judgment about either his client or Buerck. It is embarrassing when private strategy discussions spill into public view, he said, but he noted that neither man has been charged with a crime. "Both Kyle and Brett are highly motivated, intelligent, hard-chargers," Weiner said. "They play hardball. . . . But that's not wrong. That's the way it is in politics."

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