COLUMBUS, Ohio – In one of three state primaries Tuesday, voters are being asked to pick candidates for governor in battleground Ohio, where the outcome could signal dissatisfaction with scandal-embroiled Republicans and could foreshadow prospects for change in November.
North Carolina and Indiana also had primaries Tuesday for governors, members of congress and for district attorney in Durham County, N.C., where voters were deciding whether to replace the prosecutor in the Duke University rape case.
But it is in Ohio, a bellwether state that was critical in deciding the 2004 presidential election, where the Republican party has been beset by scandal and where politicians looked for signs of voter dissatisfaction.
Voters leaving a polling place in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville said they were affected by the nasty tone of the GOP race.
"I saw a lot of backstabbing, name-calling, character assassination. I don't go for that kind of stuff," said James Martin, 66. He said the negative campaigning influenced his choice in the Republican primary, but he wouldn't say who that was.
That atmosphere also may have affected turnout, along with steady rain in some areas. "It's bad weather conditions and it's the name-calling that turns people off," said poll judge Don Zaidel in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, where only four voters were waiting when he opened the door.
The race for the Republican nomination for Ohio governor has been painted as party outsider vs. party insider: outsider Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state who served in the Reagan administration and carries a Bible to events, against insider Attorney General Jim Petro.
Blackwell's prominence as a leading black voice in the GOP could be pivotal to Republicans. He is the first black to run for governor in Ohio and is among a handful of gubernatorial candidates poised to draw from the Democratic Party's typically loyal black base.
Blackwell's ads have also hit on the state's biggest scandals, seeking to taint Petro with connections to a state investment in rare coins that went awry and to tie him to Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to four ethics violations last year involving a failure to report free golf outings and gifts.
Nationally, Republicans are coping with scandal from the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which has ensnared Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.
Petro, who lagged in polls published Sunday, has hammered Blackwell as a hypocrite who opposes abortion and gambling even though some of his multimillion-dollar stock portfolio is invested in those interests.
The winner of the primary is likely to face Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland in November. Strickland is viewed as the Democrats' best chance in 16 years to regain some control over a state government where all three branches are controlled by Republicans. Strickland was heavily favored over a former state legislator in the Democratic primary.
Republicans targeted the House seat Strickland leaves open as one of its best shots nationally to gain a Democratic congressional spot. They have been helped by the fact the Democrats' leading candidate must run as a write-in due to a filing mistake. National Democrats and Republicans have spent roughly $1 million in the race, more than they have for any primary in the past decade.
Indiana's nine congressional incumbents were expected to advance easily to November, with most challengers short on money and party support. Sen. Richard Lugar, one of the most popular politicians in state history, had no Republican opposition Tuesday.
It was the first election in which all 88 Ohio counties were using either touch-screen electronic voting machines or optically scanned paper ballots.
"It just takes a little longer the first time because the poll workers are figuring out things also," said Donna Mueller, who used a touch-screen machine in Strongsville. "It didn't take me longer once I got started."