Attacks Cloud Outlook in Ohio

Posted June 13, 2005 at 6:54pm

Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine (R) employed an all-out negative advertising blitz in the final days of the bitter contest to succeed former Rep. Rob Portman (R), as the son of Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) fought to keep his candidacy alive amid sinking poll numbers.

Although DeWine appeared to have all of the advantages at the outset of the special election contest — including his last name and the vast fundraising network to which it provided access — it has become increasingly difficult to determine who will emerge victorious from today’s GOP primary.

DeWine’s campaign has spent the final week on life support with observers and strategists alike debating whether he still has even a remote chance of winning today’s crowded GOP contest, which will be tantamount to election in this heavily Republican suburban Cincinnati seat.

Many already count DeWine out of the picture and predict that Portman’s successor will be either former Rep. Bob McEwen (R), former state Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) or state Rep. Tom Brinkman (R).

Both Brinkman and Schmidt have seen their prospects skyrocket in the wake of DeWine’s prominent collapse, while McEwen’s support appeared to plateau as a result of DeWine’s attacks against him.

At one point, with McEwen and DeWine trading barbs on the airwaves, it looked as if Schmidt might cut through the middle and coast to victory.

But Brinkman, who had little media presence in the race until last week, has been boosted by a late advertising attack against Schmidt that claims she supported a tax increase while in the state Legislature. The television spot, paid for by the Club for Growth, promotes Brinkman as the best alternative in the race.

Schmidt released a response ad, reiterating her support for making President Bush’s tax cuts permanent and subtly reminding voters that the third-party interference is not welcome in the race.

“We know Jean Schmidt. She lives here, she works here,” an announcer says in the spot. “She’s one of us.”

Schmidt, who was endorsed by the Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday, suggested in an interview yesterday that the Club for Growth attack ad had inadvertently helped her campaign.

“I’ve just got a lot of momentum going in my direction and the Enquirer endorsement has really helped,” she said.

Schmidt is also hopeful that amid all the mudslinging voters will take note that she has maintained a positive message on the television and radio airwaves.

“They’re very upset at the negative advertising that’s been going on,” she said. “They’re just sick of the mud.”

In addition to the Club for Growth ad, Brinkman also received a geographic boost from DeWine’s collapse because both men are from Hamilton County.

In an effort to try to stem Brinkman’s late surge, DeWine began airing a radio ad late last week attacking the state legislator for not supporting the death penalty. The ad features Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who is backing DeWine.

“Their numbers spike and then they fall again,” said one source close to the McEwen campaign. “It’s like Whack-A-Mole.”

DeWine’s campaign remained positive Monday, touting the “absolutely tremendous” response he received on a district-wide bus tour over the weekend.

“Right now, Pat’s working the phones non-stop and we’re very encouraged about the race,” said Shannon Jones, DeWine’s campaign manager. “The momentum is clearly in our favor, and now it’s about turning out our vote.”

The other three candidates are focused on getting their voters to the polls as well.

“We have a strong get-out-the-vote effort that we’ve been working on since the first day,” said the source close to McEwen’s campaign. “That’s what we’ve been executing since Sunday.”

While DeWine’s bid was no doubt hampered by the conservative backlash against his father’s participation in the deal that averted the “nuclear option,” many observers say that his personal life has been a larger impediment in the race.

DeWine’s 2004 divorce has not been made a direct issue in the race, but the messy details of his personal life are known by a broad swath of the primary electorate and his opponents have often talked about how long they have been married to emphasize their family values.

McEwen, who has concentrated his efforts on reaching out to the party’s most conservative voters, saw his support take a dive after DeWine began attacking him for his 166 overdrafts with the House Bank and for living in Northern Virginia and working as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist since his 1992 defeat.

McEwen bought a condo in the district earlier this year, after Portman’s nomination to be U.S. trade representative had been announced.

One independent observer said that with McEwen and DeWine attacking each other voraciously, the other two contenders could emerge victorious.

“I think voters are going to be look for an alternative to the other two guys and it’s probably going to be Schmidt or Brinkman,” the source said.