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'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)

Parsley, who faces an Internal Revenue Service investigation prompted by a complaint by a group of ideologically moderate ministers who allege he has crossed a line barring political advocacy from the pulpit, has not endorsed Blackwell. But he is quick to add: "I'm sure Ohioans will recall which candidates have stood with them in the past."

So far, it seems that the efforts of Parsley and other evangelical leaders are being overshadowed by this state's recent record of job losses and the resultant economic concern. The unemployment rate in Ohio is 5.7 percent -- a full point above the national figure. Meanwhile, the Ohio Poll found that 82 percent of Ohioans believe that the economy is in poor or fair shape, and two-thirds say things are getting worse.

For his part, Blackwell, 58, has offered a string of proposals that he says would revive Ohio's economy. He wants to do away with the graduated state income tax and implement a flat tax. He has proposed looking at ways to de-couple school financing from local property taxes and cap educational administrative costs, while allowing students greater freedom to attend schools of their choice. "I think the big issues in the campaign are jobs, education and health care and getting our economy growing again so we can break out of the growth deficit we've been in," Blackwell said.

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and a professor at the University of Akron, said that in this campaign Blackwell's biggest problem has not been his policy ideas but his arch-conservative profile. "Ohio leans to the right. But he is way to the right, and some Republicans are quite unhappy with his relationship with religious conservatives," Green said.

Strickland has advocated greater investment in public schools and has targeted state support for growing sectors of the Ohio economy. Meanwhile, he has brandished his own socially conservative credentials, including his support of gun ownership. Although he told the Dayton Daily News that he is now an occasional churchgoer, Strickland touts his background as a minister.

"When you have a candidate who is pretty conservative in Strickland, that makes drawing distinctions between the candidates difficult," Bocian said. Republicans control every statewide office in Ohio and both chambers of the legislature, but, given the voter pessimism this year, that is proving to be a political disadvantage. Then there are the scandals that have ensnared two of the leading Republicans in the state: Gov. Bob Taft was convicted of illegally accepting gifts, and Rep. Robert W. Ney admitted taking bribes in the Abramoff scandal and is not seeking reelection.

Through the years, Blackwell has worked to cultivate an image of independence, opposing state tax increases and supporting the ban on same-sex marriage, which both Taft and Sen. Mike DeWine (R) opposed. Blackwell, an African American, served as state treasurer, mayor of Cincinnati and a deputy secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development before being elected Ohio's secretary of state in 1998. He was in charge of the problem-plagued 2004 election in Ohio, an issue of particular importance to some black voters who felt disenfranchised. But through multiple recounts and lawsuits, Blackwell has been cleared of playing a role in any irregularities.

He says that his support of values issues involves not just opposing same-sex marriage and abortion but also ensuring that the poor receive health care and educational opportunities -- positions he said are warmly received by black audiences. Also, as the campaign winds toward Election Day, Blackwell said he plans to close ground by sharpening his attacks on Strickland's record as a congressman, which earned him a ranking as one of the least influential members of the House from the nonpartisan Web site Congress.org.

Meanwhile, Strickland plans to challenge Blackwell among his base of values voters. During a recent debate, Strickland talked about how his community and church helped him become the first member of his family to go to college. Then he reminded the audience of another stop in his career path: "I've been able to be a minister in the United Methodist Church."


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