'Values' Decline As Issue In Ohio

Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth  Blackwell, facing camera, is trailing double digits in polls.
Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell, facing camera, is trailing double digits in polls. (By Kevin Riddell -- Chillicothe Gazette Via Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two years ago, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell was a driving force in the triumphant campaign for a state constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. That helped cause a surge in turnout of "values voters," who helped deliver this pivotal state to President Bush's successful reelection effort.

As the Republican candidate for governor, Blackwell has been counting on values voters to do for him this year what they did for the party in 2004. But the culture wars are being eclipsed as a voting issue by economic worries and Republican scandals that have altered the political dynamic here in striking ways. Several polls find Blackwell trailing his Democratic opponent, five-term Rep. Ted Strickland, by double digits with less than four weeks to go until the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

The difficulty Blackwell is experiencing winning support for his socially conservative message reflects the anxiety evident this year among voters in Ohio and elsewhere, some pollsters say.

"It is harder to run on wedge issues when voters have huge concerns on their minds regarding war in Iraq, economic issues and a Congress they perceive as doing little," said Michael Bocian, a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm in Washington.

Strickland, 65, an ordained but non-practicing minister, has built his lead by speaking about the economic distress of this manufacturing state and by painting his opponent as a loyal soldier of a scandal-plagued Ohio Republican Party. At the same time, he is directly challenging Blackwell for values voters in ways that many analysts believe Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry did not two years ago.

"What I call the bread-and-butter issues probably are more prominently on the minds of people today than two years ago," Strickland said in an interview. "I think a lot of Ohioans are feeling economically insecure. Consequently, they are less willing to be distracted by issues that don't involve the economic security of their families."

His observation is borne out by a recent survey by the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, which found that 63 percent of likely voters in the state are basing their choice of candidates on the "issues" rather than "character." The poll found that seven in 10 Strickland supporters were most concerned about "issues," including the economy and education; just over half of Blackwell supporters felt that way.

"Character can be everything from a voters' evaluation of a series of issues as a package, to notions as to whether they think a candidate agrees or disagrees with their values," said Eric W. Rademacher, co-director of the survey. Two years ago, exit polls found that "moral values" edged out the "economy and jobs" to top a list of concerns that Ohio voters said most influenced their Election Day choices. The exit polls found that at least a quarter of voters identified themselves as born-again Christians, and three-quarters of their votes went to Bush.

Leaders of the religious right here promised to build on that success to reshape Ohio's political landscape. They pledged to support candidates determined to "bring spiritual revival and moral reformation to the state," in the words of Reformation Ohio, an evangelical outreach effort.

No one better embodied that promise than Blackwell. An experienced and articulate politician, he is given to quoting Scripture on the campaign trail and is unambiguous about his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. "I don't know how many of you have a farming background, but I can tell you right now that notion even defies barnyard logic," Blackwell has said of same-sex marriage.

As in 2004, conservative religious leaders have been registering thousands of voters across the state, talking from the pulpit about the need to vote and leading rallies to drum up enthusiasm among values voters.

"Politicians in Ohio certainly are focusing more on economic issues, but our focus is on encouraging members of our church and the Center for Moral Clarity to support the candidates that best reflect their values on issues of righteousness and justice," said Rod Parsley, a Columbus televangelist. Parsley is pastor of World Harvest Church, which has 12,000 members, and leads Reformation Ohio and the Center for Moral Clarity, another outreach group.

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