Once again the nation's political focus is on Ohio, and once again cash and carpet-bagging consultants have flowed into our region to influence a campaign. Last year, both parties — particularly the Republicans — targeted Ohio as a key swing state in the presidential race. They ended up being right, of course, as President Bush secured his second term with a strong showing here.
Tuesday's special election to fill the remaining term in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District might not have the same national significance, but political watchers are keeping an eye on it. A full year before the pivotal mid-term elections, Tuesday's results could be a harbinger of the voting public's attitudes toward all the big issues of the day, from Iraq to social security.
Or it could be another romp by Republicans as all 2nd District races are.
The race between Democrat Paul Hackett and Republican Jean Schmidt has been run by both sides as a referendum on the Bush administration. And that makes sense — the 2nd District is such a sprawling area, from downtown Cincinnati to the most rural sections of southern Ohio, it would be difficult for candidates to target specific local issues that resonate with large numbers of voters.
Plus the district hasn't had a competitive race in decades, so voters there wouldn't know what to do if a candidate actually tried to speak to their daily lives.
Hackett is a new type of candidate Democrats might want to experiment with.
He's an outsider, having no real affiliation to party politics, and of course he's a military veteran, he has an attractive young family and he's smart, funny and charming — everything Sen. John Kerry hoped to be last year.
He can't be beat on the patriotism and family values canards Republicans use against Democrats these days (not that GOP consultants won't keep trying). And, having served in Iraq, he has specific ideas for how to finish the war there — which obviously is the polar opposite of Bush and his supporters.
Schmidt's unilateral backing of everything Bush has done, is doing and will do is a pretty simple campaign message: "If you like President Bush, vote for me." There's not much else to say or to explain.
So get ready for lots of political pundits to read the tea leaves of this election. If Schmidt wins by less than the 70-30 margin by which Bush took some of the 2nd District counties and Rob Portman used to win when he held the seat, it could confirm that — as the polls are showing — public support for Bush is deflating.
If Hackett wins, as we hope he does, it could open the floodgates for Democrats to mount aggressive campaigns to retake the House and Senate next year and even to take a strong stand against Bush's Supreme Court nominee. Or it could just mean that 2nd District voters desire a fresh approach to critical issues instead of "me too" posturing from an undistinguished GOP insider.
Everything about Hackett is superior to Schmidt, except in the amount of money he's been able to raise and his access to Washington insiders. The conventional wisdom is that he can't overcome Schmidt because of her huge advantage in campaign contributions — and it wouldn't be called "conventional wisdom" if it wasn't correct most of the time.
Here's hoping 2nd District voters will see past the dollar signs, TV commercials and billboards and focus on the people running. There's little doubt that Hackett would serve this district more independently and more honorably.
CITYBEAT ENDORSEMENT written by John Fox. Polls are open 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.