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Springer Plays Ohio Partybuilder

As Ohio gets set to play a starring role in the battle for the White House this fall, one of the leading players in the effort to help rejuvenate the long-beleaguered state Democratic Party is a man who needs only a microphone and one fired-up audience to put on a production.

Talk show host Jerry Springer, dubbed the king of trash TV for the raunchy antics his guests deliver to devoted viewers worldwide, has earned a different title back home in the Buckeye State: “Democrat of the Year.”

Springer, a delegate to this week’s Democratic National Convention, earned the award after spending the past year and a half traveling the state’s Democratic dinner circuit and raising an estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars for struggling local parties, some in rural parts of the state written off as Republican strongholds.

He began the effort as part of an exploration into a Senate run, but almost one year after Springer announced he would forgo a challenge to Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) this November, the controversial host — and former mayor of Cincinnati — has not slowed down, as a 2006 run for governor still remains a likely possibility.

“Let’s point out something that has been obvious to me for the last year and a half — the Democratic Party in this state is coming back,” Springer told the fired-up crowd of Ohio delegates gathered in the ballroom of the Boston Sheraton Tuesday morning. “Wherever I go in this state, it’s no longer a one-party state.”

Although the state has long been considered a presidential bellwether, and many observers believe it could be the deciding factor in this year’s contest much the way Florida was in 2000, Democrats have had little success breaking the GOP’s lock on downballot races in recent years. In the wake of continual setbacks, the state party has suffered both in morale and infrastructure.

But that is changing, Springer insists, touting anecdotal evidence collected from his travels throughout the state.

“I think it’s no longer fair to say, as everyone had been saying, that the party’s just in shambles,” Springer said in an interview. “The truth is it’s got some life. Every county is showing more and more people getting involved. Particularly young people.”

Springer is modest about his involvement in helping to rebuild the party and he quickly bats down the idea that he’s become a one-man party-building machine, crediting organized labor and state party leaders as being equal partners in the effort.

“The party is being rebuilt, at many levels,” he said. “I may be an element in it all but certainly no one person could rebuild the party.”

But the crowds that Springer draws to local events are helping to do just that.

His celebrity and ability to bring out large crowds has been especially beneficial in the rural, western parts of the state where downtrodden Democrats — energized by national get-out-the-vote efforts every four years — amount to little more than an afterthought when it comes to off-presidential year statewide elections.

“Those parties are just flat on their backs. They’ve had no money. They’ve got nothing. And they’ve had nothing for a decade because the Republicans have run everything,” said Dale Butland, Springer’s longtime friend and spokesman. “Jerry shows up and they draw four times what they normally draw.”

So far this year Springer has keynoted 56 Democratic Party dinners across the state and the local parties get to keep 100 percent of the profits because the self-made millionaire takes no speaking fees and pays his own way to events. Those profits, combined with Springer’s personal contributions to candidates across the state, amount to a more than $1 million investment in the Ohio Democratic Party.

Springer’s celebrity appeal isn’t just evident back in Ohio.

Whether making his way around Fenway Park during the Red Sox-Yankees game Sunday night or moving through the corridors of the Fleet Center, Springer is besieged by admirers. Police officers have even stopped and asked to have their pictures taken with the king of trash television.

Tuesday night in the bowl outside the Fleet Center, two young teenagers approached the talk show host to introduce themselves as big fans, even though, as one said, “we may seem like we’re kind of young to be watching your show.”

On Tuesday night, he stopped by the bloggers alley in the upper level of the Fleet Center, where several bloggers are engaging in live online discussions. Springer, who has attended every Democratic convention since 1968, is also covering the event as a special correspondent for three television stations in Ohio and the visit was part of a package he was putting together on the blogging phenomenon.

“One of the things that I know Springer’s trying to do is create a community based around Democrats in Ohio, who want to strengthen the party,” said Markos Moulitsas, who runs the widely-read liberal blog

By energizing the young people and bringing new voters into the process, Springer believes there is real potential now more than ever for state Democrats to turn around their fortunes, outside of the presidential election.

“The possibilities are there,” he said. “We’re certainly getting resources. We’re getting energy. I’m certainly committed to it. I think we’re going to be pretty strong at the top of the ticket” in 2006, a clear allusion to his expected run for governor.

Ohio delegate Debbie Lieberman said she believes that the 2004 presidential contest may give Democrats in the state the momentum to score what would be their first statewide victory in a decade in 2006. Lieberman serves on the city council in Clayton, a suburb of Dayton.

“We keep saying that pendulum’s going to swing back here pretty soon, isn’t it? But it’s when,” Lieberman said Tuesday night as she sat in the state delegation’s prime seating spot on the floor of the convention hall. “I do feel after we win Ohio for Kerry that we’re going to have that groundswell again.”

Gov. Bob Taft (R) is term limited and cannot run again in 2006. Although the Democratic bench is shallow, Springer could face a primary if he does run. Rep. Ted Strickland (D) is among those mentioned for the race.

Springer, who lost the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary, has said he will decide on a run for governor after November, and if he decides to pull the trigger he’s committed to ending his show. After about a year and a half without the show, which would likely still run in syndication, “then it’s old news,” he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, salivate at the prospect of taking on a figure as controversial as Springer, although they acknowledge that his ability to spend personal resources could cause some headaches.

And while Springer has been able to produce record turnout crowds on the rubber chicken circuit, there is no evidence of whether that outpouring will eventually translate into votes.

Some Ohio Democrats are reluctant to rely so heavily on such a controversial figure as Springer.

But Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), co-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, insisted that “Jerry Springer has something to offer the Democratic Party” regardless of whether he runs for governor.

“I think he should be welcome to the table to turn out the people that he can turn out,” she said. “Plus he is capable financially of helping the party.”