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Ohio's crew feels the love

Super seats, a great hotel and Karl Rove at the table reflect the delegation's 'it' factor.

September 01, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

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