Ohio Republicans Racing Storm Clouds

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 25 -- 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 say much about whether the GOP can retain its current 10-seat majority. Fifteen Republican seats and 18 Democratic seats are on the ballot this fall. With a far smaller number considered truly competitive, specialists agree that Democrats face a tough road to win the six they need.

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 2004, 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 and onetime boy wonder of Ohio politics 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."

For the past five years, Brown has worn a lapel pin that shows a canary in a cage. It represents birds that alerted miners to dangerous gases in mine shafts. He says the pin signifies the continuing struggle for workers' rights and social justice.

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