Republicans in statewide races all over the country appear to
be bracing for bad news this fall.
But as they wait, and campaign, and debate, they eat.
In Waynesville, Ohio, this weekend, it was sauerkraut. Thousands
of pounds of sauerkraut. The state's strong Eastern European heritage
was on pungent display as the town's tiny, antique shop-filled
Main Street was clogged with eating people.
Sauerkraut pizza. Cabbage rolls. Reuben sandwiches. Ooooh. Fried
Mush, cheese steaks and bratwursts, too.
Two-term Republican Sen. Mike DeWine and his wife Fran chose
the sauerkraut sundae ... a Styrofoam bowl full of potatoes, olives,
cheese, sour cream, bacon bits ... and sauerkraut. They offered
me a bite.
I declined. I am not running for anything.
This is what politicians do just a little over two weeks out,
especially when, like DeWine, they are engaged in virtual hand-to-hand
combat to win an election against ever-lengthening odds.
DeWine's nemesis in this electoral battle is Rep. Sherrod Brown,
a Democrat from the northern part of the state who is riding the
crest of a wave of voter discontent to nip aggressively at the
before he nips, Brown must eat. His first stop Sunday morning?
At a pancake breakfast in a Cleveland union hall. Democrats running
for county commission, judge, state representative and state treasurer
streamed into a cavernous basement space to preach to the choir.
The audience, clad in candidate T-shirts and stickers, lined up
to watch Brown and his wife Connie Schultz flip pancakes and serve
them up in a cafeteria-style line.
No heroics here. Each flapjack was carefully tipped over by spatula,
not flipped in the air. (A presidential candidate once fell backwards
off a stage in Iowa when he got too jiggy with his pancake flipping.
He sprung back up, spatula still in hand.)
But while the candidates dig in to all manner of pumpkin pie,
bratwurst ... and as DeWine did recently, even hot potato chips
fresh off the production line ... they also are digging in for
the long haul.
The polls in Ohio are full of dire warning for the incumbent.
Brown, once considered a longshot to unseat DeWine, is by some
accounts, ahead, and at the very least, neck and neck.
"The race is close because Ohio's a competitive state,"
DeWine told me during the sauerkraut festival. "I mean look
at the last couple of presidential campaigns. We were a state
that for years elected John Glenn, Howard Metzenbaum at the same
time we were voting for a Republican president and sometimes Republican
governors. When I was elected I was the first Republican to be
elected for Senate in a quarter of a century."
Indeed, Ohio's reputation as a swing state is richly deserved.
From its industrial urban north to its conservative Republican
core, the state has been fiercely fought over during the last
two presidential elections. A 2004 amendment to ban gay marriage
brought many conservatives to the polls who also helped George
W. Bush win the state. But many Democrats have remained bitter
about what they saw as widespread voting irregularities.
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a staunch Bush backer who
is lagging 20 points behind Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland in
this year's governor's race, appears so far to be reaping the
whirlwind of that lingering bitterness -- which could help Brown.
This year, Democrats are taking a page from the GOP playbook
with a twist -- pushing for a ballot initiative to increase the
minimum wage. At every stop, Brown raises the issue.
the last 10 years the minimum wage in this society has been stuck
at $5.15 an hour," he told a small crowd at the Ohio Veterans
Home in Sandusky on Sunday. "Five fifteen an hour. With the
cost of living increase it's the lowest minimum wage in 50 years.
During those 10 years the minimum wage is stuck at $5.15 an hour,
yet Congress voted itself six pay increases during those 10 years."
Brown gets grunts of agreement with lines like this, especially
from voters who appear to be growing ever more skeptical about
politics and politicians. In Ohio this year, scandal, indictment
and guilty pleas have dogged Gov. Bob Taft, Rep. Bob Ney and a
prominent party fundraiser -- all Republicans.
The two Senate candidates could not be more different. Where
challenger Brown sprinted along a Vermillion town parade Sunday,
dashing among marching bands and majorettes to shake hands, DeWine
strolled with his wife, a daughter and a granddaughter through
the sauerkraut festival Saturday, moving among the crowd mostly
unnoticed except by our cameras.
And where DeWine -- in shirt and tie behind a podium -- received
a cordial enough response at an early morning pep rally for Republican
canvassers that featured Blackwell and House Majority Leader John
Boehner, Brown and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones got Democrats chanting
at the pancake breakfast: "Enough is enough."
This is what pollsters call the intensity factor. And that's
what might determine the outcome of this race.
-- By Gwen Ifill for the Online NewsHour