Ohio's crew feels the love

Times Staff Writer

Every four years (and who can blame them?) the convention delegates of Ohio get a little bit big for their britches. To be sure, California and New York have many more electoral votes and billionaires with open checkbooks, but Ohio is where the presidential rubber hits the road.

As Ohioans here at the Republican National Convention are fond of pointing out -- and they do it about twice per conversation -- no president since 1900 has won the White House without winning Ohio. Now, that's not strictly true, of course. Ohio picked the right guy only 24 out of 26 times. But that doesn't matter; it's the conventional wisdom that counts. In the primary season, tiny Iowa may wield a ridiculously outsized influence on the race for the White House. In the fall, Ohio is Iowa on steroids.

How can you tell that Ohio is important? The signs are everywhere.

First, the Ohio delegation is staying in the very fortified, very centrally located Marriott Marquis hotel on Times Square, mere blocks from Midtown's Madison Square Garden, where the convention is taking place. (Not that they're complaining, but Guam and Hawaii, with zero and four electoral votes respectively, were assigned to hotels at the southern end of Manhattan.)

Second, the Ohio delegation has the best seats on the convention floor, front and center. "I've told the delegates to bring napkins with them," said Ohio GOP spokesman Jason Mauk, "so they can wipe the spit off their faces."

Third, requests for interviews with delegates have poured in from all kinds of news organizations -- CNN has profiled some of them, CBS' "The Early Show" did a makeover with another. The attention has been so intense that some stories are focusing just on the media attention Ohio is getting.

"When they see we're from Ohio," said delegate Janet Voinovich, wife of the state's junior United States senator, "their eyes light up. One woman said, 'Oh, you're Florida this year!' "

Here's how else you can tell Ohio matters: Each morning, at their hotel breakfast meetings, delegates are fired up with rousing speeches before heading over to the convention hall. When the Republican National Committee offered the Ohio delegation a speaker named Dan Senor, who was the civilian spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the Ohio delegation's response was, basically: Are you joking? Don't you know who we are?

On Monday, the convention's opening day, the Ohio delegation had breakfast at its Times Square hotel with the president's chief domestic advisor, Margaret Spellings; the president's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman; and the president's chief advisor, Karl Rove.

The speakers, White House big shots all, seemed thrilled to be there.

"It's a marvelous state," Rove told the delegates. "This Saturday, we're gonna be in that political epicenter which every president visits: Ashtabula."

Because of its importance this year, Rove and Mehlman have put tremendous pressure on the Ohio GOP. In 2000, George W. Bush won the state, but saw his 10-point lead dwindle to about 3.6 points, even though Vice President Al Gore had stopped advertising in the state weeks before the election.

In an attempt to replicate the Democrats' ground game, Republicans have revamped their voter registration efforts. They've signed up nearly 60,000 volunteers and say they have made 1 million phone calls. They have created a 20-member team working full time on one assignment: the get-out-the-vote plan for the campaign's final 72 hours.

Since he took office, President Bush has made 22 visits to Ohio. Mauk said that between now and the election Nov. 2, the president, Vice President Dick Cheney or their wives will visit Ohio about once every five days.

Democrats, naturally, are not sitting idly by. "The stars of the Democratic Party are twinkling over Ohio every day," said Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. The party's nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, will be in Ohio for a midnight rally Thursday, moments after Bush accepts the GOP nomination. Former President Clinton was in Cleveland on Tuesday. Howard Dean will be there Sunday.

In this heated environment, many demands will be made on the party faithful on each side.

"I want to thank you all for what you are doing," Rove told them Monday. "We've got 64 days left -- not that anyone's counting -- and I am asking you to do more than you've ever done before. We've got to make an extraordinary effort. We gotta use every brain cell. We gotta ask every friend, every family member, every person we know to give it all to this crusade."

Mehlman asked each delegate to register 10 new voters and recruit more volunteers when they returned home. Later, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, who spent the rest of the morning "dialing for dollars" for his own reelection campaign, said he was going to do just that.

Like many in his party, though, Voinovich is concerned about voter burnout. In a state like California, where Kerry is ahead about 10 points in the polls, there won't be a tremendous amount of television and radio advertising. Why bother? But in a state like Ohio, where the race is squeaky tight, the onslaught of political ads has become so annoying that, as Voinovich put it, "after a while, people just tune out."

"Frankly," he said, "instead of encouraging them to register, the TV commercials make them fed up. All we see is people beating up on each other."

As Betty Montgomery, Ohio's state auditor put it, "Politics is not a spectator sport in Ohio. It's a contact sport."

Midwest meets Midtown

The 179 Ohio delegates (including alternates) are very much a picture of middle America. Equally split between men and women, the group is overwhelmingly white. About 16% are black, Latino, American Indian or Asian. There are lawyers and farmers and small businesspeople. A large chunk are state and local elected officials.

Some have never been to New York City before. When a Los Angeles reporter introduced herself, three different delegates said, "Aren't you far from home!"

Some were a little bit worried about New York being a terrorist target. Some were a bit concerned about the protesters who converged on the city Sunday and have promised to make appearances during the week, but as Jeanne Turnbull from Xenia, Ohio, said, this is America, after all, and they have a right to express themselves no matter how wrong they are.

One delegate said he had run-in with a protester on Sunday, the day of the big anti-Bush march. Alan Bedol is a 69-year-old businessman who manufactures TV tray table sets (and who, without provocation, said he'd moved production to China, where he could make sets that sell for $28.95 instead of $60). Bedol said he was walking to a party when a young woman, seeing his Republican National Convention name tag on his shirt, spit at him, called him a name and said, "How dare you?"

"It was terrible," Bedol said. "I took off my badge right away."

The Rev. Aaron Wheeler, a 57-year-old Baptist minister and chairman of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, is one of about 16 black members of the Ohio delegation. He is a third-generation Republican.

"We know it was Republicans that freed the slaves," Wheeler explained. "I'm old-school civil rights. A lot of blacks are not supporting John Kerry because he has not said what he would do for us. He has not had black folks working for him. Bush at least has Condi Rice, Colin Powell and several others."

There is sense in this delegation, as in many quarters of the GOP, that the party is on a mission from God. In remarks to his fellow Ohioans on Sunday, Voinovich said, "With the help of the Holy Spirit, I know that we will be successful on Nov. 2."

At breakfast Monday, David C. Forbes Jr., founder and pastor of the 2,500-member Columbus Christian Center, drew chuckles when, during a prayer, he said, "Lord, I know there are others on the other side that are praying, and we know you hear them too. But Lord, be on our side."

A Republican party

Presidential conventions are not all business. You can't nominate a candidate 24 hours a day. There have to be some diversions, and there has to be some time for lobbyists to say thanks and try to buy untold influence in the only way they know how: by throwing fabulous parties.

On Sunday afternoon, a group of delegates attended a Broadway play. At dusk, they boarded a ship for a party put on by a coalition of interested parties including the American Chemistry Council, a freight railroad, a utility, some law firms and an insurance company. The speeches, the music, the food were all fine, but the highlight of the four-hour cruise came about 10 p.m. as the vessel approached the Statue of Liberty.

There she stood, tall in the harbor, her torch and her crown glowing against the night sky. The air was balmy. The moon was full.

Suddenly, on the top deck, delegates spontaneously began singing "God Bless America." It was an emotional moment, and one that belonged not to Republicans, nor to Democrats, but to a small group of patriotic Americans who just happened to be from Ohio.

The song ended. A slightly tipsy young man pumped his fist in the air and began chanting "Four more years. Four more years." No one joined in, but just like that, the spell was broken. The Americans from Ohio became Republicans again, and resumed their party.

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