COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Ted Strickland, once a popular Democrat who led his party's near-sweep of state power four years ago on the coattails of GOP scandal, is at risk of losing his seat to Republican John Kasich, a folksy ex-congressman and former Fox News commentator who touts Tea Party values.
Strickland rode to victory in 2006 on a pledge to clean up corruption and turn around Ohio's economy. A national recession contributed to thwarting the latter goal, plunging the manufacturing-heavy state into double-digit unemployment during Strickland's term.
Kasich has sought to convince Ohioans that he has the skills to turn the state around. As a congressman, he helped usher through the first balanced federal budget since man landed on the moon 28 years before. As a Lehman Brothers managing director, he tells voters, he learned the language of business necessary to create jobs.
Much is at stake in the race -- namely, control of a critical presidential battleground state whose governor could play an important role in who wins the White House in 2012. That explains why Ohio voters will see tens of millions of dollars spent on television ads between now and election day on Nov. 2. Early voting begins Sept. 28.
Strickland, 69, has a cross-section of beliefs that have appealed to Ohio voters in the past. He's been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, teacher, police and labor unions, and gay rights groups. In early polls, Ohioans said they believed the ordained Methodist minister and former congressman from Appalachia with a Ph.D. in psychology shared their beliefs more than his rival. In 2006, he won all but 15 of Ohio's 88 counties, many by large margins.
Yet Strickland has struggled to make his anti-Kasich message stick.
He has banked on a campaign strategy for more than a year that Kasich embodies "Wall Street values" that would turn off mainstream voters. Those "values" include earning salary and bonuses of nearly $590,000 at Lehman in 2008, before the banking giant collapsed.
Commercials for Strickland make references to millions or dollars in losses Ohio public pension funds suffered after Lehman's collapse.
For Strickland's labor union and working-class supporters, that strategy may well resonate. But Republican and coveted independent voters in the latest polls ignored or rejected the attacks. A Quinnipiac University poll released in mid-September had Kasich ahead by a whopping 17 points.
"One way to look at the poll is that Ohioans that are concerned about the economy and don't have another reason to support Ted Strickland are starting to coalesce behind Kasich," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
Kasich, 58, the son of working-class parents like Strickland's, characterizes his political views as "tea party before there was a Tea Party" -- pointing to his congressional record and his beliefs in smaller government and lower taxes.
But Kasich's campaign has been rich in talking points and short on specifics. He favors eliminating the state income tax, for example, but has persistently resisted detailing the budget cuts required by such a move.
He has laid out an economic agenda that includes privatizing state economic development functions, curbing business regulations and streamlining work force training programs. He has been endorsed by the state association of CPAs and Ohio's largest small business group, the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio.
Strickland, who championed his own regulatory reforms and job training initiatives, quipped that Kasich is engaging in "CSI" -- "copying Strickland's ideas."
Strickland's pitch for a second term includes efforts to bring green energy and other high-tech jobs to the state, to improve public education and access to college, and to extend health care coverage to more low-income children.
Strickland had more than $7.1 million on hand in June, and Kasich had $5.2 million, according to the latest complete campaign finance reports filed. Both have raised about $3.5 million more since then, reports show, but what they've spent during that time won't be reported until after the election.
National political figures are lending help to both sides in the closely watched contest. Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and talk show host Sean Hannity have helped Kasich. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton have helped Strickland.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)