Gov: Strickland (D) and Blackwell (R) Lead in Poll
According to one of several Columbus Dispatch primary polls released over the weekend, Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Lisbon) holds a commanding 43 point lead over former State Rep. Bryan Flannery (D-Strongsville) in the Democratic primary for Governor. Just to dramatize the scale of this lead, consider that even if Flannery persuaded all of the 41% of voters who are undecided to support him he'd still trail the front-runner by two percentage points.
The Strickland campaign reports that the Cleveland City Council is expected to endorse him today at noon. He already enjoys the support of 37 out of the 88 county Democratic Party organizations in Ohio and numerous labor groups, as well as a huge fund-raising advantage over his still-determined opponent.
On the Republican side, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R-Cincinnati) has a less formidable but still daunting lead of 11 points over Attorney General Jim Petro (R-Rocky River). At 33%, the proportion of undecided voters theoretically provides Petro with a sufficient margin to overtake Blackwell, but he must convert two-thirds of them with only five weeks remaining before the primary.
Campaign underdogs typically hope to gain ground on frontrunners by capitalizing on mistakes at joint appearances such as public debates. In this race, however, Blackwell has announced that he refuses to debate or even appear publicly with Petro, for purely strategic reasons.
Blackwell can and should be criticized for refusing to debate his rival. Indeed, it's rare for any political frontrunner to flatly refuse to debate (as opposed to merely negotiating to limit debate) without some semblance of an excuse other than mere campaign strategy. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Heath), for example, is trying to justify his refusal to debate 18th Congressional District challenger James B. Harris (R-Zanesville) on the grounds that Ney is too busy with Congressional duties and Harris hasn't raised enough money to be a legitimate candidate. So, why is Blackwell willing to take the hit for refusing to debate? Is it because Blackwell fears performing poorly? It is true that he can ill afford to publicly defend his poorly-conceived Tax and Expenditure Limitation constitutional amendment proposal, the ramifications of which are leading to a sweeping bipartisan backlash among municipal and local officials. However, the real reason isn't fear of a public gaffe as such, it's part of a deliberate effort to restrict his primary campaign to a private conversation with his extremist ultra-conservative base, out of the hearing of the general public.
Blackwell revealed as much in this statement to the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "It's not that I don't want to debate. It's just that I'm not debating Jim in broad public audiences, but only in narrow Republican venues, because I'm in a Republican primary." Ah ha. So this refusal to debate is about not wanting to air his primary campaign positions in public, not reluctance to face Petro per se. In fact, it is all of a piece with Blackwell's exclusion of reporters from his meeting with Cleveland area pastors earlier this month, and the scrubbing from his campaign blog of any reference to his appearance before the secretive ultra-right group Council for National Policy. Blackwell's whole strategy is to do his primary campaigning in as much secrecy as possible, or at least in "narrow Republican venues," not in plain view.
What's the point of that? It reflects the critical quandary of Blackwell's strategic position. His lead over Petro is attributable directly to his popularity with the most radical of his conservative supporters, the ones who for example disdain the separation of church and state and won't countenance abortion even in case of rape or to preserve the health of the mother. However, those extreme positions will hurt him in a general election confrontation with Strickland. So, he must keep his campaigning in the primary as much as possible out of the public eye, so that he can credibly transform himself into a reasonable moderate after the primary is safely won. Also, he must instill in his base the idea that the views he expresses privately now are his genuine beliefs, and the more moderate positions he espouses in public later are a matter of mere political expedience. If it sounds like something out of the George W. Bush playbook, it should. Bush also gained early support from meeting secretly with the Council for Naitonal Policy, and Bush met privately with religious fundamentalists at the outset of the 2004 Republican National Convention in order to innoculate them against losing faith when Bush espoused more moderate views at the convention and on the campaign trail. Just last week in Cleveland, at one of the very rare events where Bush took questions from an unsanitized audience, he stumbled and punted when asked a question intended to elicit public agreement by him with fundametalists' interpretation of events in the Middle East as presaging Armageddon. Look for Blackwell to risk whiplash through similar contortions once the primary is over.