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When Making VP, Kerry Must Factor In Appeal to Ohio

Florida is yesterday’s news. In 2004, it’s all about Ohio. The apparent importance of Ohio in this year’s presidential contest means that Democratic presidential standard-bearer Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) must at least look for a running mate who might be able to help him carry the Buckeye State. [IMGCAP(1)]

Normally, I’d start the search in the state itself, looking for a Democratic officeholder who could deliver its 20 electoral votes to Kerry. But in this case it is not worth much of an effort, especially given that some Democrats once looked to controversial TV “celebrity” Jerry Springer to be the party’s Senate nominee this year.

Ohio’s governor, two Senators, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer are all Republicans. That is because the state’s Democratic Party was eviscerated in 1994, and the state is still without a statewide Democratic figure of sufficient stature and appeal to help as Kerry’s running mate.

So Kerry will have to look elsewhere for a number two who might have appeal in Ohio.

Republicans have never lost Ohio and gone on to win the White House, which is one reason both parties see it as so crucial this year

In 2000, George W. Bush (R) carried Ohio by only 3.4 points, or a plurality of 168,007 votes out of 4.7 million cast. While that was a 450,000 vote turnaround from 1996, when President Bill Clinton (D) carried the state by more than 288,000 votes in his re-election, it was less than half of Republican George H.W. Bush’s margin in 1988.

The elder Bush beat Michael Dukakis by almost half a million votes in Ohio, roughly the same margin by which Ronald Reagan carried the state in 1980, when he ousted incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

Democrats have carried the state in three of the past nine presidential elections, but the party’s nominee has not won a majority of votes cast in the state since Lyndon Johnson did so in 1964.

At least three Democrats often mentioned as possible Kerry running mates could sell particularly well in the state.

Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) Midwest roots and working-class message could have special appeal in blue-collar parts of Ohio, including Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.

Job losses, particularly in the manufacturing sector, remain a major issue in Ohio, and Gephardt has virtually owned that issue for years. I can’t think of anybody better in the Democratic Party than Gephardt if Kerry wants a running mate who can motivate and mobilize working-class voters in Ohio.

But while the mere mention of Ohio may evoke images of steel plants and tire companies, the Buckeye State also includes farms, small towns and suburbs. Democrats carry the state when they either roll up large margins in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County or cut into normally solid GOP margins in rural and suburban areas.

Of course, Gephardt’s reputation as an opponent of free trade and an ally of industrial unions might backfire outside the state’s large and midsize industrial cities. And if “job losses” recedes as an issue, the Missouri Congressman’s appeal as a running mate might fade.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is a Southerner who probably couldn’t help Kerry carry a single Southern state (with the possible exception of Florida) but could be an asset in southern and central Ohio, where conservative and moderate voters who aren’t thrilled with President Bush’s performance might find the notion of President Kerry even more worrisome.

Edwards’ legislative record is decidedly liberal, and he borrowed much of Gephardt’s populist rhetoric during the presidential primaries. But the Senator’s home state, drawl, style and small-town roots could make him appealing to some rural voters.

But if there is one Democrat who might be able to help Kerry the most in Ohio, it could be Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a former two-term governor and true moderate Democrat who has been successful among voters not unlike the kind found in south and central Ohio.

During his years as governor, Bayh earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative, and even die-hard Republicans praised his opposition to tax hikes and big spending programs. And as a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, Bayh was an early supporter of the Iraq war.

The Indiana Democrat, whose style is generally easy-going and low key, has put together a voting record in the Senate that is far more moderate than most Northern Democrats. In short, Kerry’s selection of Bayh might well get the attention of swing voters in Ohio.

Of course, Kerry might go in a very different direction. He could look for someone who could help him in a different state, or he might avoid a state-specific choice. But the importance of Ohio is so considerable that the Democratic presidential nominee will have to think long and hard how his VP choice might play in the Buckeye State.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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