BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio - Ken Blackwell is campaigning backward.
In the two weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 election, the Republican candidate for governor is concentrating on his base after weeks of trying to cut into Democratic leads in Ohio's urban counties. The move comes amid reports that conservatives have grown weary of the GOP in light of scandals in Washington and Columbus.
On Saturday, he rallied the faithful in Logan County, which voted better than 2-1 for President Bush in 2004. Over the weekend, he also visited Marion, Findlay, St. Marys and other GOP strongholds, as well as a couple of Columbus churches.
Recent polls have found Blackwell trailing Democrat Ted Strickland by double digits. The winner will give his party an edge in the 2008 presidential race in the state that gave Bush the push he needed to win re-election in 2004.
Blackwell is running in a difficult year for Republicans, with scandals surrounding U.S. Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio and Mark Foley of Florida and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. Recent reports have Republicans worried about turnout, especially among Christian conservatives who were instrumental in Bush's success in Ohio and elsewhere two years ago.
Blackwell gave a motivational speech to Logan County Republicans on Saturday, telling his troops that polls have been wrong before. Indeed, in a late October poll in 1994, when he ran his first statewide campaign for treasurer, Blackwell trailed his opponent by 5 percentage points. He won that election with 54 percent of the vote.
To see why Blackwell's tale of 1994 is misleading (Some would say, a lie, be sure to read this story I posted on Buckeye State Blog.
"People don't understand your neighbor-to-neighbor, church member-to-church member, family member-to-family-member networking," Blackwell told the crowd of about 100 at Logan County Republican headquarters. "Once again, the pundits are saying it's a miserable year for the GOP."
He said he wasn't making any special pitch to religious conservatives, as he did in his primary victory over Attorney General Jim Petro. He typically winds up campaigns reminding Republicans of the importance of getting out the vote, he said.
"My strategy in all my campaigns has been to work back to my strength," he said.
However, some party stalwarts have noticed a difference.
"There is no doubt in Ohio that we have been kind of kicked down," said David Knight, 63, who is unopposed for re-election as a Logan County commissioner. "That notwithstanding, what we're about is the future, not the past."
It's not just Ohio Republicans who are getting kicked. National Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman was compelled to send a pick-me-up e-mail to supporters and the media last week after reports that the GOP's conservative base is less than enthusiastic about campaigns this year.
"Despite the media hype, an examination of all the facts makes it clear: the Republican base is active and engaged," Mehlman wrote.
Religious conservatives in Ohio have less enthusiasm for the ticket this year than in 2004 because Bush is not running and Taft's approval rating has sunk to the low teens, said John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Strickland also has made some headway with those voters because of his status as an ordained United Methodist minister, Green said.
"He (Blackwell) has worked very hard in appealing to religious voters, but the political winds are blowing in the Democrats' direction," Green said. "It's not as easy as it was in 2004 and 2002."
Blackwell discounts the notion that his base is restless.
"As I've crisscrossed the state over the last three weeks ..., we've had record turnouts. So it's news to me that we've lost any intensity or enthusiasm. It's even more than we saw in 2004," Blackwell said after his speech.
Does anyone believe this? After national exposure of his upcoming rally in Cincinnati, Blackwell only got roughly 200 people to show up. Did Bush ever have a crowd that small in Ohio in 2004? And do I need to remind everyone of this post, too?
Strickland plans to wind up by visiting 72 of Ohio's 88 counties over the next two weeks. He spent Sunday in GOP-rich rural Ohio.
"One of the things that gives me hope for having an effective administration if I win is the fact I've received so much support from Republicans. Ohioans want someone who will be a unifying force instead of a divisive force," Strickland said Sunday by telephone en route from Delaware to Newark in central Ohio.
So to recap, both nominees are running in heavily Republican areas. Blackwell it trying to tell folks that this is just like 1994, except polling showed him ahead at the time. And Strickland is going to visit 81% of the counties in Ohio during the remaining weeks. This is not a campaign that is letting up at all.