Although the presidential election is 19 months away, the Republican Party has a real and growing problem in Ohio that could cost it the White House in 2008.
Simply put, the GOP brand is in trouble in Ohio, more so than it is nationally. That matters because in 2004 Ohio was the key to an Electoral College majority, and could well be the same in 2008.
If Ohio's 20 electoral votes were to go to the Democrats, assuming that no other states switch allegiance, that would give them the White House.
And as simplistic as that strategy sounds, it could turn out to be successful because of the woes that are besetting the Republicans in the Buckeye State, more than in any other key battleground.
In fact, polls of Ohio voters are finding them less inclined to support GOP candidates, less likely to consider themselves Republican than in the recent past, and giving higher ratings to potential Democratic candidates with a consistency that should set off alarm bells at the Republican National Committee.
Ohio has historically has been slightly more Republican than one of the other big Electoral College battlegrounds, Pennsylvania. In recent presidential elections it has been roughly as GOP as Florida, the other major swing state.
Four other states — Democratic-leaning California, New York and Illinois, and GOP bastion Texas — have more electoral votes than Ohio, but they are generally not up for grabs in a close national election.
There are a myriad of reasons why the Republican problems are magnified in Ohio:
• The war in Iraq and Bush are at least as unpopular in Ohio as both are nationally, perhaps even slightly more so.
• The previous Republican governor, Bob Taft, left office in January with a job approval rating in the teens — the lowest in the country — after an administration beset by scandal and loss of support even among Republicans.
• The Ohio economy is not doing as well as the rest of the country. In fact, two-thirds of Ohioans told a Quinnipiac University poll last month that the state's economy was "not so good," or "poor."
• New Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has a job approval rating in the same Quinnipiac poll of 53 percent favorable, 12 percent unfavorable.
That Quinnipiac poll last month also found that among Ohio voters, Democrats won eight of the nine match-ups when voters were asked to choose between the three leading Republican candidates - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and their Democratic counterparts, Sens Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards. The ninth, between Giuliani and Obama, showed a tie.
In Florida, which went GOP in 2004, and Pennsylvania, which went Democratic, the Republicans do much better in similar trial heats.
In Quinnipiac's Pennsylvania and Florida just released polls, Giuliani leads all three Democrats and McCain is either ahead of them, tied, or just a point or two behind.
Of course, if the Republicans in 2008 were to carry Pennsylvania and lose Ohio, they would net a gain of one more electoral vote than in 2004. And even if they lost Ohio, they could still win the presidency, for instance, by taking Wisconsin or New Hampshire, both of which voted Democratic by a smaller margin than Ohio went Republican in 2004.
Nevertheless, the Ohio political climate is problematical for the GOP. It will require the Republicans to focus on a state in which they have assumed in the past they were in better shape than most of its Frost Belt neighbors.
A lot can happen in the next 19 months to return Ohio's political climate to its historically GOP-friendly atmosphere, but unless it does, Republicans ought to worry about their 2008 prospects.