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Democratic Candidates Set Sights on Winning Ohio

For more than a decade, Ohio was the place where Democratic dreams went to die.

Now, in the state that sealed President Bush's 2004 re-election, even Republicans concede Rep. Ted Strickland in on track to become the first Democratic governor in 16 years.

At the same time, Rep. Sherrod Brown has clawed his way to a large lead in the polls over GOP Sen. Mike DeWine.

Democrats have led for weeks for two House seats long in Republican hands, and party officials talk giddily of snatching two or three more seats — gains that would almost certainly portend an end to GOP control of the House.

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Already Republicans have abandoned plans to advertise or run their highly regarded get-out-the-vote program in races to replace Brown or Strickland in the House.

"There is this Republican fatigue here in Ohio," says Chris Redfern, chairman of a Democratic Party that has been shut out in statewide political races for more than a decade.

"We've got incompetent leadership at the statehouse and you can't beat that right? But every day there's George Bush," he said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Republicans dismiss talk of a political tidal wave, and say even Rep. Deborah Pryce, a member of the House leadership, is making a comeback in a race that seemed lost.

But increasingly, their goal is to minimize losses at a time of widespread voter discontent over the economy, the war in Iraq and corruption.

Sensing danger, they urge voters not to lash out indiscriminately, despite unhappiness with President Bush, outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Taft and a steady diet of scandals.

"Some things have happened over the years that shouldn't have happened," State Auditor Betty Montgomery confessed to a Republican gathering in western Ohio recently.

"But that isn't everybody's fault."

Even politicians at the dawn of a congressional career criticize Taft, who is concluding his second term with low approval ratings.

"When a governor raises taxes as a Republican, particularly when you're trying to get out of a recession, that's just bad leadership," said Jim Jordan, who clashed with the governor while serving in the legislature. Jordan is favored to win an open House seat with ease.

Not even Democrats could dream up the corruption double feature that has unspooled in recent days, GOP Rep. Bob Ney pleading guilty in the Jack Abramoff scandal last Friday, and party fundraiser Tom Noe going on trial in a separate state corruption probe on Monday.

"Bob Ney is a liar, a criminal and a disgrace to public service," said Republican chairman Bob Bennett in a written statement. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Democrats lead in the polls in the race for his seat.

Public polling underscores the political difficulty for Republicans, particularly DeWine and gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell.

A New York Times/CBS News survey reported that 70 percent of Ohioans surveyed said the state and the nation were on the wrong track.

Nearly two-thirds rated the economy as bad, suggesting more anxiety about jobs and pocketbook issues than elsewhere in the country. Sixty percent disapprove of Bush's handling of the war.

Even lifelong Republicans, the men and women who donate their money and time, make plain their distress.

Outside a fundraiser, one man strode up to Rep. John Boehner, the House majority leader, and lectured him about the scandal involving disgraced Rep. Mark Foley and his sexually explicit computer messages to congressional pages.

A few hours later, Betty Fox stopped to answer questions at the Darke County Republican party pig roast, a pulled pork-and-speeches affair in a cavernous cinder-block exhibition hall on the local fair grounds.

She'll vote Republican up and down the ticket, she said, but Iraq weighs on her mind. "I was all for Bush going in there because I thought he had prayed about it," the 77-year-old Greenville resident said. But, she added, "It isn't going well and I don't know what can be done about it."

There's no barbecue or slaw — or friendly chatter — 90 miles distant that evening. It's more like dueling pistols at close range when Rep. Steve Chabot and Democratic challenger Joe Cranley debate in suburban Cincinnati.

A conservative since his election to Congress in 1994, Chabot tries to establish independent credentials. He stresses that he was one of only 16 GOP lawmakers to support Democratic legislation increasing disclosure of political activities.

Condemning Foley, he says anyone who knew about his activities and didn't take action "should be bounced out ... I don't care who they are."

Then he turns his attention to his rival, a member of the Cincinnati city council. The city has a bad business environment, he says. "Crime rates are way too high, too."

Cranley is next. "When Steve got elected in 1994 on the Contract with America they said they were going to end the scandals. Boy did they fail," he said. "They preach market solutions and what do they do? They give out no-bid contracts."

He criticizes Republicans on the war in Iraq and for refusing to raise the minimum wage increase. "I've taken a pledge not to accept a pay raise until the federal budget is balanced," he concludes.

Chabot, relentless, sees an opening.

"It's great my opponent takes a pledge not to take a pay raise in Congress, because he's taken them on the city council."

Given the political environment, officials in both parties budgeted for television advertising in the Chabot-Cranley race months ago, and have made good on their promises.

It's Chabot's toughest race in six years, a durable incumbent struggling against a tide. In contrast, Republican officials say Rep. Jean Schmidt's difficulties in a next-door district are largely of her own making.

Elected to a safely Republican seat in 2005, she quickly drew national attention during a debate over Iraq. "Cowards cut and run, Marines never do," she said, speaking of Rep. John Murtha, a 37-year veteran of the Marines. She quickly apologized.

If Murtha, D-Pa., forgave, he didn't forget, campaigning recently for Democratic challenger Victoria Wulsin. Unlike Cranley, Wulsin is in political limbo, waiting to find out whether Democratic Party strategists in Washington deem her race competitive enough to invest in.

"I think Rahm Emanuel is about to send me a check, so that's good," she said of the chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee. "I don't think it's come yet."

Republicans insist Chabot is comfortably ahead, and Schmidt is in no danger of losing.

But they're not taking any chances, either, even though the district gave Bush 64 percent of the vote in 2004.

The House GOP campaign committee recently spent more than $100,000 for mass mailings to shore up Schmidt's chances.