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Obama visits a different Ohio

The president focuses on the economy in a fickle state where the tide appears to be turning against once-popular Democrats.

August 19, 2010|By James Oliphant, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Columbus, Ohio — Two years after scoring a decisive win in the seesawing political environment for which Ohio is famous, President Obama returned Wednesday to an altered landscape, where Democratic fortunes are seemingly tipping back the other way.

A fierce battleground in the last three presidential elections, Ohio was good to Democrats in 2008, not only handing the president a victory over John McCain but helping House candidates capture traditional Republican strongholds in cities such as Columbus and Cincinnati.

Now, those first-term House Democrats are fighting for their political lives, the once-popular Democratic governor is in trouble and Obama's popularity within the state has tumbled. Republican challengers, many of them former members of Congress, are poised to take advantage.

The most obvious culprit is the economy. Joblessness in Ohio has increased since Obama's win, from about 6% to more than 10%, higher than the nationwide average. The state faces a huge budget shortfall. Republicans are eager to blame the ambitious Democratic agenda on Capitol Hill.

Wednesday marked the president's ninth trip to the state, underscoring Ohio's importance.

The president spent the morning in the backyard of a residence in a middle-class neighborhood north of the city, taking questions from a friendly crowd of about 40. He lauded the effectiveness of his $787-billion stimulus package, financial regulatory reform and the healthcare overhaul. And he asked for patience.

"The economy is now growing. We've made progress, but let's face it: The progress hasn't been fast enough," Obama said. "Slowly but surely, we are moving in the right direction."

Obama spoke later at a downtown fundraiser to benefit Gov. Ted Strickland, whose support statewide has eroded as unemployment has soared, and who is now locked in a tight race with John R. Kasich, one of several former GOP members of Congress seeking a return to power.

Another is former Rep. Rob Portman, who wants the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican George V. Voinovich. Portman's work as former President George W. Bush's top trade official has been a focus of Democratic attacks in a state where many are angry over manufacturing jobs flowing overseas.

"He was not a casual passer-by during the Bush years," said Portman's opponent, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.

Portman counters that exports help job growth, and pushes back at attempts to tie him to Bush's economic policies. "The world has moved on," he said Tuesday in Toledo. "Maybe the Democrats haven't."

Fisher's efforts have been hamstrung in part by the Democratic congressional agenda. Congress, he said in an interview, should have spent more time on job creation. "It would have been my preference to keep a focus on jobs during the last two years," he said.

It's a concern shared by other vulnerable Democrats such as Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, who squeaked by her opponent, Republican Steve Stivers, by just over 2,000 votes in central Ohio, and Rep. Steve Driehaus, who defeated seven-term GOP Rep. Steve Chabot in conservative Cincinnati.

Both Kilroy and Driehaus supported Obama on healthcare, the climate bill and the stimulus, and both face their same opponents — Stivers and Chabot — in rematches.

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