Lt. Gov. Richard Celeste is billing it as an "electronic house party" - which, in today's media politics, hardly suggests any dramatic new campaign technique.
But Celeste, a 39-year-old Democrat preparing to run for governor next year, may indeed be broadening the use of call-in television in a statewide hookup tonight to include a sophisticated test of his volunteer organization before next year's campaign.
The project is unique in American politics," says pollster Peter Hart, currently taking soundings for Celeste in Ohio. "I've never heard of anybody trying to tie grass roots and media together this way."
Ted Celeste, the candidate's brother and campaign manager, says the television project "to a degree, is a test of our ability to do a totally volunteer field effort without the benefit of supervision of a paid field staff. Hopefully, it will provide a unique twist to the phone-in thing - the people will be telling us what it is about politics and government that has been a barrier to their participation in the past."
Celeste has bought a half-hour of television time in Cincinnate, Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Steubenville to link about 500 house parties around the state. The living room gatherings are being organized by Celeste volunteers who responded to a coupon in his newsletter earlier this summer. The hosts, in turn, sent invitations to their friends that say, in part: "We are excited about Dick Celeste and we believe after seeing this program, you'll be excited, too."
The invitations were supplied by Citizens With Celeste, his standing political committee. About 20 guests are expected to attend each get-together, where they may watch the telecast, call in questions and make campaign pledges.
Celeste, who will be taking the calls at the originating studio in Cincinnati, will not have a prepared speech but will "say two or three things about what's most recently on my mind. I'll stick around for an hour or so after the telecast to take more questions."
In purely political terms, some Ohio Democrats also see Celeste working toward a psychological advantage over potential opponents in next year's party primary. Among his possible rivals are Attorney General William Brown, Ohio Senate Majority Leader Oliver Ocasek and House Speaker Vernal Riffe.
Observers believe an impressive show of volunteer strength by Celeste tonight might help persuade one or more of his potential rivals to give up their own gubernatorial ambitions.
Celeste, a Phi Beta Kappa (Yale) and a Rhodes scholar whose casual dress and manner blend well at informal political gatherings, took the first major step in his career in 1974 when he upset Republican Lt. Gov. John Brown in his first statewide campaign.
That victory was particularly note-worthy because the voters elected a Republican, governor, James A. Rhodes. With few officials duties under Rhodes, who has largely ignored him, Celeste has spent much of his time traveling in the state to sustain an otherwise inactive grassroots organization.
Celeste decribes his TV effort as a "dialogue rather than a monologue" in hopes of drawing new people to his organization, which his campaign chiefs say already numbers more than 15,000.
"I'm convinced," he says, "that you aren't going to substantially affect the problems we confront in the public arena unless we effectively involve ordinary citizens in the process. For example, we're having five Spanish-speaking house parties in Cuyahoga County [Cleveland]."
The participants there will be asked to pledge from $1 to $100, depending on the neighborhood. If all goes well, Celeste hopes the TV package - which will cost more than $15,000 - will net $30,000 for his campaign treasury.