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Ohio Takes a Leading Role on Stage

Elections: State has proven track record as barometer. And this year, it will emerge as a player for the first time in the nominating process.


COLUMBUS, Ohio — For years, the corporate world has known the secret of Columbus: The city's population so perfectly mirrors the nation at large that if a product makes it here, it can likely make it anywhere.

Olestra, in the form of fat-free Pringle's potato chips, played early in Columbus and then was advertised as "tested and approved by people like you." Buy a Hallmark greeting card in Columbus this week, and the store clerk encloses an order form for overnight flower delivery, a pilot spinoff business.

Ohio serves a similar purpose for the discerning politician. After all, "what is a good campaign if not good test-marketing?" asks Eric Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll.

Though the state's delegate for Tuesday's primary count pales beside the coastal giants of California and New York, it ranks as the third-biggest prize among the 16 states and one territory making primary selections Tuesday. The numbers are large enough (69 of 1,034 Republican delegates and 146 of 2,169 Democratic delegates) to be significant, perhaps pivotal.

More importantly, the results here will likely impart lessons both for the remaining nominating contests and for the general election in the fall.

Here, one state incorporates within its borders a southern sensibility, an agrarian heart, Appalachian poverty and an industrial northeast. More minorities are arriving; suburban mall-scapes have sprung up.

The track record as barometer is impressive: No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio in November, and only one Democrat, John F. Kennedy, has done so (and he came close to taking the state). Though Ohio elected Republicans as governors and senators through the 1990s, Bill Clinton carried it--narrowly--both times he ran for president.

This year, having moved up its primary date by two weeks, Ohio will be a player for the first time in the nominating process too.

As in high-drama contests in New Hampshire and Michigan--both won by McCain--Democrats and Republicans can also cross over to the other party's primary. That is a cumbersome process and has never been much of a factor here, but early signs point to some potential for switching this time. A vast pool of independents--75% of the registered voters--can declare a party at the polls on election day.

"Ohio's going to make a difference," says Gov. Robert A. Taft, who believes that his candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, cannot secure the Republican nomination without a win here.

If Arizona Sen. John McCain takes the primary instead, "I suspect it means he's going to be president," says Ohio's senior senator, Republican Mike DeWine. He is one of only four U.S. senators backing McCain.

All of the candidates have concentrated more time and resources on California and New York, but Gore has spent seven days campaigning here, followed by Bush with six. Both Republicans spent time in the state in the past week.

McCain has been surging here lately, cutting Bush's lead in half during the past two weeks, although still trailing by 17 points, according to the Ohio Poll.

At McCain's state headquarters--opened last week above a barber shop on a seedy downtown block--the poll results "gave me a chill," says state campaign coordinator Susan Kyte. She is smiling.

McCain posters have been hastily taped on the walls. There aren't enough yard signs to fill requests; Kyte has suggested that callers make their own. One volunteer e-mailed a copy of the slick McCain brochure he created on his own initiative and is distributing to colleagues.

DeWine is pushing the candidate for a second swing during the countdown days. Last week's tour of the so-called "three Cs": Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, "was a rock star setting," DeWine says, attracting boisterous crowds far exceeding expectations.

Bush announced his Virginia primary win last Tuesday at a rally in Cincinnati.

All 88 counties have Bush chairmen. Eight phone banks are operating around the state. Everyone who contacted the campaign has received a "Buckeye Bush Backer" packet containing a bumper sticker, suggestions for letters to the editor and a form for signing up friends.

But at the front-runner's headquarters, in the basement of the state Republican Party office building, a prominent place is assigned to a yellow tower of neatly stacked Bush postcards printed with a Lansing, Mich., address. These are leftovers from the bitter primary loss in Michigan just over a week ago.

"They're for inspiration," says the candidate's Midwest director, Ken Mehlman.

The roiling Republican race may be instructive as well for Vice President Al Gore, who, with strong support from African Americans and union members, seems comfortably ahead in his Democratic primary against former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley here.

Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell expects a record turnout, 2.6 million to 3 million of the state's 7.2 million registered voters.

Which party attracts those voters could prove portentous in the fall.

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