BY SANDY THEIS
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
TOLEDO, Ohio -- Hoping to turn his chief rival's recent mistakes into a campaign victory, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lee Fisher urged voters Thursday to elect a governor who will "tell the truth."
Bob Taft and Lee Fisher share a laugh with Zanna Feitler, candidate of the Natural Law Party, after Ms. Feitler won assurances from them that they would work with her if she is elected.
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"In the next 12 days, Ohio will elect the last governor of this century and the first governor of the next," he said during a televised debate. "Most of all you will elect a leader . . . who is willing to stand up for what is right and also who will tell the truth."
The comments came less than one week after an elections panel found GOP nominee Bob Taft's campaign gulity of lying in campaign commercials.
"Our campaign made a mistake. We should have been more precise in our numbers," Mr. Taft said. "I have pulled all our negative ads off the air. Let's end the campaign on a positive note."
Mr. Taft insisted that Mr. Fisher's campaign is guilty of the same conduct.
He noted that Mr. Fisher's campaign recently ran a commercial listing Mr. Fisher as "the only" candidate in the race with a plan to cut property taxes. Mr. Taft contends that his proposal to trim property taxes for some senior citizens qualifies as a tax-cut plan, too.
"Lee, are you ready to acknowledge that that is a mistake?" asked Mr. Taft.
He did not point out that the same elections panel that found his campaign guilty dismissed his complaint about the Fisher commercial. And Mr. Fisher did not get an opportunity to point it out, either, because time ran out.
The exchange highlighted why Mr. Taft insisted that all four candidates be included in the debate and why Mr. Fisher wanted a head-to-head contest between him and Mr. Taft.
Joining the two were Reform Party nominee John Mitchel and independent Zanna Feitler, endorsed by the Natural Law Party.
At times, the minor-party candidates charmed the crowd, and Ms. Feitler won assurances from the other three that they would work with her in the unlikely event that she is elected.
"You can elect one fine gentleman, or you can get all of the above with me," she said, winning applause from the 300 audience members gathered at the University of Toledo's Driscoll Center.
Mr. Taft and Mr. Fisher all but ignored the other two, opting to direct their remarks to each other.
They sparred over taxes, character, negative campaigning and affirmative action.
Mr. Taft's answers frequently referred to his government experience as a state legislator, Hamilton County commissioner and secretary of state, the job he now holds.
"As secretary of state," he said, "I've kept my promises," noting that he has computerized the campaign finance reports. He also pointed to Mr. Fisher's record, accusing him of voting 28 times as a state legislator to raise taxes.
Mr. Fisher repeatedly highlighted his plan to cut property taxes by having the state increase from 12.5 percent to 25 percent the amount of property taxes paid on a owner-occupied dwelling. Mr. Taft termed it a "risky billion-dollar scheme," and insisted it would increase state spending.
"Bob keeps calling it a property tax scheme," Mr. Fisher said. "You are too smart for that. A property tax cut is a property tax cut is a property tax cut is a property tax cut. He can call it a scheme all night. He's against it, I'm for it."
In addition to discussing the major issues of the day, the group was asked a hypothetical question: How would you respond if there is another prison riot in Ohio?
Mr. Fisher said he would rely on advice from the experts, focus on public safety and remain calm.
Mr. Taft offered a similar response, saying he would defer to law enforcement, ask the Ohio State Highway Patrol to serve as mediators and work to preserve public safety.
At one point, Mr. Fisher was asked whether voters should assume that he is soft on crime since Mr. Taft was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP is the state's largest law enforcement organization.
Mr. Fisher said he has received the endorsement of other police organizations and is the only candidate in the race who has closed crack houses and nabbed fugitive felons.
Mr. Taft said the FOP selected him because of his "consistent record calling with tougher penalties" and his "consistency over the death penalty."
The comment was a muted criticism of Mr. Fisher, who changed his position on the death penalty prior to his 1990 run for attorney general.
The four candidates agreed on one thing: Education is the main problem facing the state.
Mr. Taft said he would volunteer as a tutor if elected and promised to fund education first in the state budget to ensure it gets its fair share.
Mr. Fisher made similar promises, noting he would boost state money for Ohio's crumbling school buildings.
Mr. Mitchel pointed to the schools' problems as the main reason a tax cut is not appropriate at this time.
As they arrived, the major party candidates were greeted by hundreds of yard signs outside the Driscoll Center. About 100 pro-Fisher supporters, most of them members of the United Auto Workers, gathered outside the hall, chanting, "We beat Issue 2, we'll beat Taft too."
Issue 2 was last year's ballot initiative that repealed a Republican-written law that curbed workers' compensation benefits.
Labor is spearheading Mr. Fisher's get-out-the-vote effort and is generally credited with defeating Issue 2.
The candidates will debate again next Wednesday in Columbus and Friday in Cleveland.
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