Race for governor heats up in Ohio

By Joe Hallett and Mark Niquette The Columbus Dispatch

The last time Ohio had a Republican governor’s race this good was 1986, and Paul E. Pfeifer finished third.

But he’s learned a thing or two since then, and although it might not be the most judicious advice for an Ohio Supreme Court justice to give, Pfeifer said it’s time for Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell and Attorney General Jim Petro to come out swinging.

Politics ain’t beanbag, and Petro and Blackwell have only nine days left to score points with GOP voters. If the candidates’ flaws are laid bare en route to the May 2 primary, well, that’s OK, Pfeifer said, because Democrats will expose them eventually.

“Having it laid out in the primary is not a bad thing, because then the primary voters will be able to make a discerning judgment about who has the most strength in the fall,” he said.

Ohio GOP Chairman Robert T. Bennett knows there’s wisdom in Pfeifer’s words, but hates to hear them.

“My hope is that we emerge from this primary without too much blood on the floor within the family,” Bennett said.

The best gubernatorial primary in at least 20 years is now in the stretch run and Bennett frets about a replay of the late James A. Rhodes’ victory over two state senators – Paul E. Gillmor, now a congressman, and Pfeifer; Rhodes went on to lose to incumbent Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste.

But this time there is no incumbent – GOP Gov. Bob Taft can’t run again – and Democrats, too, will select a nominee May 2. Unlike the donnybrook between Blackwell and Petro, the Democratic race has a heavy favorite, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland of Lisbon, against former state Rep. Bryan Flannery of Lakewood.

So far, the GOP race hasn’t been a tea party. Blackwell came out of the gate after filing candidacy petitions in February with an attack ad accusing Petro of shaking down outside lawyers hired by the attorney general’s office for campaign contributions, blistering Petro for “ethics worse than Taft’s.”

Petro is airing a TV commercial portrays the proposed Tax and Expenditure Limitation constitutional amendment that Blackwell champions as being “dangerous”. With the candidates spending a combined $3 million for airtime, the TV ad war this week almost certainly will get nastier, although both campaigns declined to discuss their strategies.

“I’ve got candidates fighting as if they were Democrats,” lamented Bennett, whose party’s 12-year stretch controlling state government is threatened by scandals and possible voter fatigue over one-party rule.