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Turnout Is Crucial in the Fight for Ohio

Times Staff Writer

The last time Brenda Inkrot voted for president, it was for Jimmy Carter. The last time Martha Black voted for president, it was for Dwight Eisenhower.

Inkrot, a 51-year-old home healthcare administrator in this town on the outskirts of Columbus, is enraged by the war in Iraq and says the nation “really, really needs to get George Bush out of the White House.”

Black, 95, a retired bridal consultant near Dayton, says she is “all fired up” to keep the president right there.

That both Ohio women say they are determined to vote is just one small measure of the extraordinary interest the 2004 presidential election is drawing in this battleground state. The stakes could be especially high for Bush because no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.

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With numerous polls suggesting an excruciatingly close race for the state’s 20 electoral votes, both campaigns are engaged in an intensive get-out-the-vote drive -- as well as increasingly contentious preparations for a Florida-style legal war after Tuesday’s election. Republicans already have gone to court challenging the validity of thousands of new voter registrations filed in heavily Democratic areas.

The television airwaves are saturated all over the state, especially in the Columbus media market, where viewers this year have been subjected to about 18,000 advertisements related to the presidential campaign, according to tracking done by the TNSMI/Campaign Media Group. These include ads, often harshly negative, aired by so-called 527 groups not officially associated with either campaign.

Both Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, have blanketed the state with personal visits in recent weeks, demonstrating its central role in their strategies.

Kerry, with a Boston Red Sox baseball cap perched on his head, visited Ohio twice Thursday -- he started in Toledo, traveled to Wisconsin, then returned to Columbus for an evening rally with rock star Bruce Springsteen at Ohio State University.

President Bush stopped in the state for his 17th visit of the year Thursday and is due in Columbus today for a rally with some star power of his own: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In yet another sign of the strong passions sparked by the campaign, and amid a surge of new registrations that both sides agree is highest in urban Democratic strongholds, both sides have traded accusations of dirty politics leading up to the vote.

Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to intimidate likely Kerry supporters by planning to post an army of observers at the polls, while the GOP charges the Democrats with trying to register tens of thousands of fraudulent voters in several of Ohio’s big cities.

Behind each party’s charges is an underlying point of agreement: Turnout probably will determine Ohio’s winner.

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Election officials in Ohio’s 88 counties have been deluged with applications from new voters, so much so that the official tally is still in the works, but estimates run as high as 650,000. On the other hand, election officials concede that there are at least 100,000 duplicate names on the voting rolls, in part because of delays in purging names of residents who have moved from one county to another.

About 4.8 million Ohioans cast votes in the 2000 presidential election, and Bush carried the state by 165,000 votes.

Experts say that if the lion’s share of the new voters come to the polls, it will probably be a very good day for Kerry.

“The higher the number on election day, the better off the Democrats are,” said Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University.

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Ohio is where the Northeast, the Midwest and Appalachia come together, resulting in some strong cultural and political differences among its various regions. Democrats generally do well in Cleveland and other northern industrial cities, such as Akron and Toledo, while Republicans counter that strength in rural areas and in the suburbs and exurbs of the state’s three biggest cities -- Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Columbus, the largest of the three with a population of 715,000, is something of a wild card, which is why the campaigning -- on the ground and on the airwaves -- has been so intense in and around it.

The city still has plenty of Democratic-leaning areas, including the huge Ohio State campus. But Republicans are strong in the fast-growing outlying areas.

Columbus has traditionally been considered such a good microcosm of the nation that it has served over the years as a test market for commercial products including McDonald’s McGriddles pancakes to fat-free Pringles potato chips. And its voting patterns have often reflected national ones.

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Kerry supporters in the area say they are conducting a massive drive not only to get their voters to the polls, but to ward off what they view as the concerted Republican drive to suppress turnout through legal challenges.

Ohio law allows political parties to post challengers at polling precincts who can question whether a voter is properly registered -- by contesting, for instance, whether the voter’s listed address matches the address on other public records or whether the voter might be registered in another county.

Republicans say they intend to take full advantage of the law because, they insist, the new registration numbers in some areas of the state are simply -- and suspiciously -- off the charts.

Democrats on Monday held what they dubbed a “voter protection project” rally at the state capitol in Columbus. They demanded that Ohio not become the “Florida of 2004" and have an election marked by controversy.

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Although Democrat Bill Clinton carried the state in his two presidential races and Bush is vulnerable because of Ohio’s continuing hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to draw conspiracy theories about the conduct of Tuesday’s election because the machinery of government is largely in GOP hands.

The governor and all other statewide elected officials are Republicans, including Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who oversees voting matters. Republicans also control both houses of the Legislature and five of the seven positions on the Ohio Supreme Court, which are elected posts.

Blackwell is also a co-chairman of the Ohio Bush reelection campaign, and he has drawn the particular ire of Democrats here.

He issued a ruling earlier this year, since retracted, that would have disallowed some new voter registrations because the paper used for them was less than the standard weight for a registration form; election officials in some counties had said they were so overwhelmed with requests that they ran out of regular applications and had to make copies.

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Blackwell prevailed in a ruling Saturday by a three-judge federal panel, which agreed with him on a dispute over the casting of ballots by voters who show up at a wrong precinct.

Under the directive approved by the judges, poll workers will be instructed to tell such voters to go to the correct precinct or to a regional center for “provisional” voting if the county has one.

Democrats, citing the 2002 Help America Vote Act passed by Congress, argued that voters should be allowed to cast provisional ballots at a wrong precinct. To do otherwise, they contended, could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, especially the poor, who tend to move more often and are sometimes unaware of where their particular precinct is located.

About 100,000 votes were cast as provisional four years ago in Ohio, but some experts say the number could balloon this year and that such ballots might become the 2004 equivalent of the fight over hanging chads in Florida.

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Blackwell, a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2006, cast the judges’ ruling as a victory for common sense and orderly voting procedures.

“We want every ballot cast in Ohio to be counted, and the way to ensure that is for voters to identify their correct precinct and vote there on election day,” he said.

Meanwhile, the debate continues among voters over the candidates, rather than the process.

Black, the retired bridal consultant who is voting for the first time in nearly half a century, said she thought Kerry was evasive and untrustworthy while Bush had “restored dignity to the White House.”

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Here in Circleville, other Bush supporters expressed similar themes, although several expressed some worries that Bush had given up ground to Kerry in their debates.

“I watched all three, and I thought Kerry did a better job,” said Patrick Ellam, a 15-year Army veteran who served in Somalia, Haiti, Panama and twice in the Persian Gulf. Still, Ellam said he was a strong Bush supporter.

The president “didn’t do all that good a job of explaining himself,” he said. “It’s almost like he was taken aback or something by all the questions, and he was almost like, ‘Why am I having to take the time to explain all of this over and over again?’ But, that’s Monday morning quarterbacking. I still think he’s the right man for the job.”

But plenty of people in Circleville said they were ready for a change.

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“I really do like Kerry’s idea of consulting with other nations” on key foreign policy matters, said William Campbell, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. “I don’t think it’s a matter of asking somebody’s permission. But it is a matter of proactively trying to involve other countries.”

For the campaigns, the next few days will be all about making sure their partisans actually vote.

“It’s very clear that both sides recognize the importance of the vote here,” said Asher, the Ohio State University political scientist.

“They’ve gotten a lot of people registered, informed, activated, educated, motivated. Now they’ve got to get them mobilized.”

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Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.


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