BY SANDY THEIS
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
CLEVELAND -- There were pickets outside. Boos inside. Partisans all around. And irreverent questions.
Welcome to the City Club, the oldest continuously operating free speech forum in America and a tradition in Ohio politics.
Ohio's four candidates for governor squared off in their third and final debate here Friday before a crowd of about 650.
After brief opening statments, the group took questions from the crowd.
A labor leader -- and obvious supporter of Mr. Fisher -- opened by accusing Republican Bob Taft of planning to squeeze more money for schools by turning elderly patients out of nursing homes.
He based his accusation on this quote -- which he read -- that Mr. Taft gave to the Plain Dealer:
"One of the issues that may bear looking at is whether all the patients who are now in nursing homes in fact need nursing home care, or whether they could be provided for in some lesser-skilled facility."
Taft supporters booed, and Fisher supporters cheered, as the man asked, "Why would you even consider turning the elderly ill out of nursing homes?"
"I completely reject the premise of your question," Mr. Taft fired back.
He said he would examine nursing home payments to make sure the money is being spent wisely.
"I also have proposed an experimental pilot project for assisted living that helps people who may not need skilled nursing home care but may need a lower level of care," he said.
After the debate, Mr. Fisher said he shares Mr. Taft's belief that Ohio needs to expand options for seniors.
"Where Mr. Taft and I clearly and strongly disagree," he said, "is when he is saying, "Once you've already been admitted into a nursing home and you're there, we should review your medical eligibility and determine whether you really should be there. And if you shouldn't be there, we should move you to another type of facility.' . . . That is outrageous."
After the debate, reporters asked Mr. Taft if he wanted to offer a "clarification" to the quote in question.
"What I said has been mischaracterized," Mr. Taft replied. "What I want to do is keep people in their own homes. . . . I have no plans to remove anyone who is currently in a nursing home who needs that care."
About 50 protesters -- many of them elderly -- picketed outside. Some waved signs such as "Don't attack senior rights," and "Taft attacks the elderly."
Vermell Smith, one of the protesters, said she decided to attend the event after reading the newspaper.
"He (Mr. Taft) was talking about taking seniors out of nursing homes to help the kids and I think both are important," she said.
Polls show Mr. Taft doing better than expected in the Cleveland area -- Mr. Fisher's home and the home of the state's largest bloc of Democratic voters.
Mr. Taft, a Cincinnati native, highlighted his support in northeastern Ohio, reminding the audience that he -- not Mr. Fisher -- has been endorsed by the Plain Dealer.
"I feel very much at home here," Mr. Taft said in his opening remarks. "In fact, I've been here so much that (Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairman) Jimmy Dimora and (Democratic congressman) Dennis Kucinich are warming up to me."
Rather than emphasize his endorsements, Mr. Fisher highlighted his record and won over the hometown crowd with his call for voters to "look not just at what we will do but what we have done."
When Mr. Taft talked of the need to "make sure we have good, strong, fair workers' compensation program in Ohio that compensates injured workers fairly," Mr. Fisher fired back.
"One year ago . . . when there was an effort to slash the benefits for a man or woman injured on the job . . . Mr. Taft was part of that effort," Mr. Fisher said, referring to last year's State Issue 2. Mr. Fisher opposed the issue and Mr. Taft supported it.
"Be consistent here today," he said, turning to Mr. Taft. "Don't run away from your record."
When the candidates were asked how they would protect children in day care, Mr. Fisher cited his record again.
As Ohio attorney general from 1991 to 1995, he closed a record number of unlicensed day care centers and helped investigate and prosecute complex child abuse cases. As a state lawmaker, he voted for legislation that streamlined Ohio's system for tracking missing children.
"Helping children -- it's what my life has been all about," he said, "and it's what I'll be about as governor."
Mr. Taft replied that he would work to enforce day care licensing laws.
"I would work with our state department of human services and with our county departments to make sure that those laws are enforced," he said.
And on the subject of Ohio's mandatory tail-pipe testing program, known as E-check, both candidates said it should be eliminated. Mr. Fisher, however, called for tougher restrictions on auto manufacturers.
In addition to the two major party candidates, the debate included Reform Party nominee John Mitchel and Independent Zanna Feitler, who is endorsed by the Natural Law Party.
Mr. Mitchel stressed his experience with the Air Force, insisting he is uniquely equipped to ferret out government waste.
He told the audience there are only three real choices in the governor's race: Himself, Ms. Feitler and the other two, whom he described as "virtually the same candidate -- trained as attorneys and both are professional politicians."
Ms. Feitler, whose kind works and pledge to make Ohio "Heaven on Earth" have injected levity into the previous debates, said if she is elected, her three opponents will have a place in her administration. For Mr. Taft, she promised a job leading the state's effort to train volunteer reading tutors.
Mr. Fisher would become the ombudsman for the scandal-plagued Ohio Department of Insurance.
And Mr. Mitchel would be charged with uncovering government waste.