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Ohio Democrats Welcome Primary

Even as they see their 2006 electoral prospects looking ever brighter, Buckeye State Democrats are putting the cheeriest face possible on the potentially bruising Senate primary between Rep. Sherrod Brown and Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett — appearing resigned for the time being to allow the race to play itself out.

Hackett kicked off his campaign this week, taking a swipe at Brown in the process by billing himself as anything but “a career politician.”

“I am not one of those persons who starts their political careers the day they leave college and don’t really understand what the rest of us face in everyday life,” Hackett said.

Brown, meanwhile, who caught many party leaders by surprise when he indicated earlier this month that he would also run, seems to have several institutional advantages and is likely to enjoy the support of organized labor.

The winner of the contest will face Sen. Mike DeWine (R), whom Democrats see as particularly vulnerable given the current environment for Republicans in the state.

Publicly, many Democrats are cheering the primary as a way of strengthening their eventual nominee. Party operatives note that Democrats face a number of contested primaries for other statewide offices next year — most notably a gubernatorial primary that features Rep. Ted Strickland (D). And they say that Democratic voters are particularly motivated following a series of scandals surrounding the administration of outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R).

Jim Ruvolo, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and the chairman of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign in Ohio, said he believes primaries are useful for a number of reasons.

“I happen to think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Because by and large, our candidates aren’t as well known as [the Republicans]. And if we don’t have a primary, that’s four or five months where we’re not getting any earned media.”

Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, noted that from a historical standpoint the party has fared well when their candidates have been tested prior to the November general election.

“They’ve been pretty successful,” he said, specifically citing the 1974 Senate primary between Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn, a rematch of th 1970 primary.

Glenn eventually won the bitter contest and went on to win the general election. Metzenbaum was elected to the state’s other Senate seat in 1976, but the two former rivals shared a frosty relationship on Capitol Hill.

Rothenberg said that 1982 was the last time the Democrats had major primaries for statewide office and they swept virtually every one, with gubernatorial nominee Richard Celeste (D) leading the top of the ticket.

Ruvolo said that he believes both Brown and Hackett will be able to keep the contest civil. And, if not, he predicted that party leaders and interest groups might step in to remind them to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize.

He also said that Democratic voters are savvy enough — and eager enough for a win — that electability will be a major factor in the primary’s outcome.

“I really do think that this is a lot about who is going to be best able to win in the general,” he said. “I think you will have a strong base that will understand that. Remember that Democrats in Ohio are hungry. I mean, they’re starving for a win.”

Still, Ruvolo predicted that some traditionally Democratic interest groups may sit on the sidelines and take a “let the best man win” approach to the race.

“You may see some traditional groups stand back and say go at it,” Ruvolo said. “You know, ‘We think that the primary will be good for us and we may or may not endorse in it, but we’re going to support the eventual winner.’ I think there’s a possibility, at least, that there could be some surprises on whether groups line up as you might traditionally think.”

Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said at this early point his organization is content to stay out of the contest. But he said that position could likely change after the first of the year and after the state’s filing deadline closes.

“Right now our plan is to not make any endorsements,” he said, although he added that individual unions may choose to endorse a candidate independently. “We’re going to let things unfold.”

But Brown is expected to have the advantage when it comes to attracting support from organized labor. He has been a leader in the House on issues of importance to labor and has fought against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and other measures that unions oppose.

Burga had high praise for Brown, while admitting that as of now he knows little about Hackett’s position on labor issues.

“He’s been a wonderful Congressman for the state of Ohio,” Burga said.

Burga also agreed that primaries are not always detrimental to the Democratic Party, noting that they allow candidates to make mistakes early and expose any structural problems their campaigns have before the general election.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Ohio Congressional delegation also appear split on whether to jump into the fray at this early stage.

Nicole Williams, a spokeswoman for Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, said the Congresswoman hasn’t decided whether to endorse anyone in the primary.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, on the other hand, has already endorsed Brown.

“My boss is strongly behind Congressman Brown,” Kucinich spokesman Doug Gordon said. “He has endorsed Congressman Brown and he looks forward to working to make him the next Democratic Senator from Ohio.”

Even if Ohio’s Democratic leaders appear split on whether to take sides in the primary, Brown appears to carry several advantages.

One is his last name, which is at least as popular a surname as Taft in Ohio when it comes to politicians. Also, about 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote comes out of northeastern Ohio, which is Brown’s base. Plus, he was sitting on $2 million in his campaign treasury as of Sept. 30, while Hackett, after raising close to $850,000 for the special House election he almost won in an upset in August, had less than $20,000 on hand.

Jeff Rusnak, an Ohio-based political consultant who has worked for Brown since his first Congressional race, said the primary plays to Brown’s strength as a campaigner.

He also predicted that in the end, Brown would garner widespread support from the political establishment in the primary.

“I think it’s a warm-up and it’s a test,” he said. “Sherrod’s a great retail politician. He was a great retail politician in 1992 and he’s a great one today.”

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