Strickland walks line in Ohio primary

Published 9:52 am Tuesday, February 24, 2009

— Last week, two of Ohio’s most prominent Democrats lined up to run for the U.S. Senate seat that Republican George Voinovich will vacate in 2010. That put state government’s No. 1 Democrat, Gov. Ted Strickland, in a pickle.

One of the Senate candidates, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, is Strickland’s dear friend and right-hand man, and also was his development director — a position Fisher resigned when he announced his candidacy. Fisher’s decision poses both logistical and political issues for the governor, requiring him to find a replacement in the development department and presumably a 2010 running mate, as well as to navigate a sudden party primary with finesse.

Fisher’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, appeared to one-up the Strickland-Fisher contingent with the web-based announcement of her candidacy Tuesday.

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While Brunner sat, Obama-like, calmly describing the goals of her Senate run to anyone who clicked on YouTube, the governor and lieutenant governor were frantically rearranging their schedules for a sudden campaign announcement. The event kicking off Fisher’s campaign was eventually set for 6 p.m.

Rumors were swirling that U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown — a Democrat who serves alongside Voinovich in Washington — had encouraged the primary standoff. Like Ohio’s storied Senate pair Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn, Brown and Fisher are rumored to have a strained relationship.

Both rumors are untrue, said Brown spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak. The senator did not push Brunner’s candidacy has many times shown that he and Fisher are close, she said.

‘‘Sen. Brown and Lt. Gov. Fisher have a strong relationship, they work together on economic development in Ohio and are longtime friends,’’ she said.

For his part, Strickland walked the line.

First, he enthusiastically endorsed Fisher’s candidacy Tuesday night, a badge of support that will go a long way for Fisher during the primary. A Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 5 found 78 percent of fellow Democrats feel favorably toward Strickland, as well as 63 percent of the state’s influential independent voters.

‘‘This is a bittersweet moment for me,’’ Strickland said of losing his development director and potential 2010 running mate. ‘‘But I am absolutely thrilled to be here because Lee Fisher is superbly qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate.’’

Next, Strickland engaged in what appeared to be some feather-smoothing.

As the titular head of the Ohio Democratic Party, it’s his job to support all Democrats — including Brunner. Not to mention that angering Brunner as she prepares to run next spring against the man who has been Strickland’s go-to guy on economic development and job creation could be a bad move. Economic-based attacks could serve to weaken Fisher, but could also hurt Strickland’s own re-election bid if the economy continues on its current course and joblessness and hardship persist.

So, in a move perhaps aimed mostly at insiders who had been rustling over the Brown rumors, Strickland shuffled his daily activities yet again so he could join Brown at a health care round-table that the senator had previously scheduled at the Columbus Public Health Department.

As the two touted the signing of President Barack Obama’s $787 billion federal stimulus package, they practically gushed over one another. Brown called Strickland ‘‘the best governor in the United States,’’ and Strickland called Brown his mentor and hero. Brown had been forced to return to Washington from Ohio, where he was attending his mother’s funeral, to cast the deciding vote on the stimulus package.

Strickland, a former congressman who served with Brown in that chamber for many years, said Brown is ‘‘one of the dearest friends I have on the face of this Earth.’’

As the press dispersed, Brown told reporters he had no role in getting Brunner into the race against Fisher — nor will his endorsement be forthcoming.

‘‘I have no interest right now in endorsing, period. I had nothing to do with either candidate getting in the race, period,’’ he said. ‘‘Let’s let it play out and see what happens.’’

The next test in the race will come on March 31. That’s the date when candidates must turn in an accounting of their first round of fundraising. Fisher’s money-raising abilities are impressive, Brunner’s only modest. She is banking on another lucrative round of support from EMILY’s List, the political action committee that supports pro-choice women Democrats.

Strickland’s best hope for party unity is if one candidate swamps the other’s fundraising, now or in future filings, and the weaker of the candidates relinquishes the Senate bid.

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.