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Taft takes medicine with slate of public appearances

Gov. Bob Taft, seeking to repair his image and perhaps save his job, didn't shy from the spotlight after becoming the first Ohio governor convicted of a crime.

Taft attended a groundbreaking for a new school in eastern Ohio on Monday, three days after admitting in a crowded city courtroom Aug. 18 that he was treated to free golf that he failed to report, in violation of Ohio law.

The next day he gave a speech in Cleveland at a Great Lakes forum. The day after, he visited a rails-to-trails project in London in west-central Ohio, toured suburban Toledo to see damage from the emerald ash borer, then attended a school ribbon cutting.

At the school event in Midvale on Monday, some residents held up signs calling for him to resign. At every event, reporters hit him with questions on the scandal that led to his conviction.

Taft had little choice but to get back in the public eye, said Nancy Martorano, a University of Dayton political scientist.

''You either head back out and do what you normally do, or you hide,'' Martorano said. ''If he had hid, that would probably make him seem guilty of a much bigger deal than this is.''

The governor is getting back to work, spokesman Mark Rickel said.

''He's focused on an aggressive agenda, he's focused on the job of being governor,'' he said.

Even Taft's backers don't list public appearances as one of his strong suits. His jokes often fall flat and his speeches are those of an administrator, not an orator.

The governor also has never relished the media sparring that follow such events, at best adopting a resigned expression as he patiently answers questions.

For all of his discomfort with such appearances, however, Taft has remained an accessible governor. Except when he's on vacation, his weekly schedule usually includes at least two public events, often in the Columbus fishbowl.

Taft must show the state he's both sorry for what he did and prepared to stay in office, said Greg DiDonato, chairman of the Tuscarawas County Democratic Party.

''In the political environment, if he's going to stick it out for 16 months, he's doing what he has to do, which is hit the road, try to recover from this recent damage,'' said DiDonato, who lives about five minutes from Taft's eastern Ohio appearance.

''This is a guy who wants to finish his term. It makes sense. He's got some making up to do - he violated Ohioans' trust,'' he said.

But hopes that Taft could use last week's appearances to put his conviction behind him anytime soon were dashed by nagging developments related to his criminal case.

Documents continued to emerge questioning how he could not have been aware of a 2001 memo that added free golf to the list of gifts public employees are prohibited from accepting.

The Ohio Ethics Commission based much of its case against Taft on that memo.

Then, Taft was forced to acknowledge that he neglected to report an additional 12 gifts to the Ohio Ethics Commission, out of 1,800 reviewed by his office.

Complicating Taft's recuperation is the fact that even before the scandal broke he had some of the lowest approval ratings for an Ohio governor in 25 years.

''The next few weeks will be critical,'' said John McClelland, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party.

Taft ''has to regain the trust and confidence of all Ohioans, and that will take a lot of work,'' he said. ''The governor is doing the right thing by putting the past couple of weeks behind him and getting back to doing what he should be doing as governor, and that's leading the state.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press's Columbus bureau.