By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
With 100 days before a crucial multi-state Super Tuesday primary that could decide the Democrats' presidential nominee, the campaign of national front-runner Howard Dean has the most visible presence in voter-rich Ohio.
Dean supporters are making contacts and raising money in Ohio with a grass-roots effort that includes potluck dinners, meetings with supporters, Internet contacts and fund-raising, volunteer workshops and handouts at Cincinnati Bengal games.
Other Democrats, including congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, are only just starting to make inroads in a state with 20 electoral votes that historically plays a major role in presidential elections.
None is close to the organization Dean has on the ground, according to Democratic Party officials.
"The Dean guys are all over the place," said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke.
The campaigns of Gephardt and retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark have started to show some presence in Ohio, Burke said.
Organized labor, in particular, has begun to do some organizing for Gephardt, Burke said. But other campaigns appear to be concentrating and trying to survive by winning support in earlier caucuses and primaries.
Burke got a look at Dean's grass-roots strength in July, when Hamilton County Democrats met at a community center in St. Bernard.
Along a walkway leading into the center were about two dozen Dean supporters greeting the 75 to 100 committee members attended the meeting.
Then in early September, at organized labor's annual Labor Day Picnic at Coney Island, the only campaign with as visible presence was Dean's, Burke said.
"That's what they are so very good at," he said. "Making a presence."
Dean volunteers have handed out campaign literature to fans at Bengal games, and plan to do so again at games against San Francisco on Dec. 14 and Cleveland on Dec. 28.
The effort for Dean is equally aggressive in the Democratic battleground of Cleveland, said Cindy Marizette, executive director of the Cuyahoga Democratic Party.
Kucinich, a congressman and former mayor of Cleveland, has an "obvious" presence in northwest Ohio, Marizette said.
"But Dean's people have been very visible," Marizette said.
Beginning in January the Dean campaign will hold a series of town hall meetings in Cincinnati, said Bill Bridges of Covedale, a leader in Dean's Ohio campaign.
"When Bush was here a few weeks ago he said the race (for Ohio) is going to be won in Hamilton County," Bridges said. "Well, Howard Dean is going to do all he can to win Hamilton County."
With President Bush's nomination assured, the GOP primary is almost an afterthought. But for Democrats the stakes are huge. Ohio is one of nine states holding primaries on March 2, including the country's two biggest states, California and New York.
It is likely that by March 2 the field of nine Democrats will be down to three or four, and by the time the votes are counted that day the nomination could be locked up, said Xavier University political science professor Gene Beaupre.
"Ohio is in play," Beaupre said. "I don't think before the Ohio primary we'll have a definitively clear picture of who will be the Democrats' candidate."
If the primary were held today Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut would win, according to an Ohio Poll of 333 Democratic and Independent voters interviewed Oct. 16 through Nov. 2.
Lieberman led the Democrats with 18 percent; Dean was actually tied for fourth with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry with nine percent and trailed Gephardt (14 percent) and Kucinich (12 percent).
But those numbers are certain to change, said pollster Eric Rademacher of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, which conducts the Ohio Poll.
Lieberman's lead was a result of the name recognition he built as Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate in 2000, Rademacher said.
"We'll see different polling results once the field of candidates is reduced and Ohio voters start to pay attention," Rademacher said. "
That should start in January and heat up in February, said Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party.
"Soon enough we'll really start seeing the candidates and their surrogates through personal appearances, campaign events, news stories and advertising," Trevas said. "This is Ohio, after all, and Ohio is always a player in presidential politics."
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