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In Critical Ohio, Dem Hopefuls Taking a Powder In Primary Race

CLEVELAND — Despite all the hoopla in Iowa and New Hampshire and the rivers of ink spilled in the national press, the Democratic presidential race has yet to make an impression around these parts.

Candidates, preoccupied with earlier primary contests, have paid little attention to Ohio, local operatives say. Elsewhere, former Vermont governor Howard Dean is running away with New Hampshire and is in a death-battle in Iowa with Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. But three months before the March 2 Ohio primary, none of the candidates has any kind of distinct advantage here. Few have built even a semblance of a local campaign organization. None has gained the allegiance of the Jewish community, a tiny — at 144,000 souls — but active piece of the electorate that mostly votes Democratic.

“Nobody has put that much of an effort into what’s going on here,” said political consultant Jeff Rusnak, who recently agreed to work on the campaign of retired general Wesley Clark. “Ohio is a wide open state. While most of the major candidates come through here on a regular basis, none, with the exception of Howard Dean, has developed a hard-core base of support. [Massachusetts Senator John] Kerry was here last December. He used Cleveland for an economic speech and met with political leaders, but I don’t know one person who’s heard from him since,” said Rusnak, in remarks echoed by others.

Still, the torpor the Democrats are displaying locally may be shortsighted, pundits warn. While other states with March 2 primaries may yield more delegates, Ohio is shaping up into a critical battleground state for the November election. A moderate, blue-collar state known as a reliable bellwether of presidential elections, it has been hit hard by job loss. The recession in the manufacturing sector has contributed to huge state budget deficits and a severe local brain drain as educated young people pick up and leave. As such, it is one of the few states that is genuinely up for grabs — and that, some say, could be the whole game.

“Perhaps the key question for Democrats who vote strategically is whether Dean can do well in the Midwest against Bush next November,” liberal columnist Harold Meyerson wrote November 19 in The Washington Post in an article titled “Who Can Win Ohio?” “With the South out of play, and with Florida looking like a formidable challenge…the Democrats will have to hold the states that Al Gore won and pick up at least one northern swing state that he lost — the biggest of which is Ohio. … If the Democratic game comes down to states like Ohio — and I think it does — then Wesley Clark or Dick Gephardt may be better positioned than Dean to oust the president.”

Local politics watchers say the race in Ohio does indeed boil down to those three: Dean, Gephardt and Clark.

Clark, like Dean, has a cache of local supporters built up through the Internet. Gephardt, who has visited the state several times, has a “decent and visible” leadership for his campaign in the form of two local congressman, Reps. Sherrod Brown and Ted Strickland, Rusnak said. Gephardt can also count on support from industrial unions, which are strong in the state.

According to Jerry Austin, an Ohio political consultant who ran the campaigns of former Ohio governor Dick Celeste and is not yet supporting any candidate, “this is a two-person race: Dean and Clark.” Dean, he said, “has the money and the people,” but Clark, despite his late entry into the race, has a chance to gain strong support based on his military background, “because the war on terrorism will be an issue.”

Austin, who also managed Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, thinks Gephardt may win Iowa, but that he “got hurt severely” when two major unions, SEIU and AFSCME, recently endorsed Dean.

“I don’t see Gephardt as a finalist,” he said. “With nine people in the race, they start running out of money.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who represents Ohio’s 10th Congressional District, does not have broad appeal statewide and is not getting any benefit from his status as a native son, locals said. Several local Jewish activists said the Jewish community is suspicious of Kucinich, an ultraliberal whose district has a large Arab population, despite his close friendship with a prominent Jewish female lawyer here. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has a strong following within the local Jewish community, does narrowly lead the Democratic pack in polls. But local pundits nearly unanimously said that the surveys merely reflect Lieberman’s name recognition, not any hard support.

“The Jews that I know who are players had a fundraiser in each city for Lieberman, found out there’s nothing there and won’t give him anything more,” Austin said. “There’s no enthusiasm for him [merely] because he’s Jewish, and they don’t expect him to win.”

That pronouncement appears to be borne out in the case of one of Cleveland’s most prominent Jewish philanthropists, Morry Weiss, chairman of American Greetings Corp. Weiss told the Forward that he has contributed to the campaigns of Lieberman and Gephardt because “you need friends” on both sides of the aisle, but he plans to vote for President Bush because he appreciates Bush’s positions on Israel. Weiss, who is Orthodox, said he expects the president to “sweep” the Orthodox Jewish community.

Several Jews interviewed randomly at a Saturday night bar mitzvah sports party last weekend left the impression that the greater Jewish community, like Ohio generally, remains up for grabs.

Alan Rocke, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, said he would support “anybody who can beat George Bush” for president. He said he thinks Dean or Clark will likely get the Democratic nomination, but he worries that Dean has positioned himself too far to the left to win a general election.

Eric Senders, a businessman, also evinced skepticism about frontrunner Dean. “For a smart man, he’s done some stupid things,” Senders said. “He’s always got his foot in his mouth.” He said he wants to see how the Democratic field shakes out before he makes any decision about voting.

Celine Weiss (no relation to Morry), a homemaker, said she did not know whom she would support, but she knows she will not vote for Bush. She blames him for the Iraq war, which she called a “quagmire.”

Such sentiments cheer Clark supporter Rusnak, who notes that Clark spoke at the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland last March 5. “I’ll be doing plenty of outreach to the Jewish community,” he said.

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