Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Campaigns war over Cleveland

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

CLEVELAND - If you live in Cincinnati and think that you're at ground zero of the presidential campaign, you haven't been to Cleveland lately.

After all, when was the last time actress Hilary Swank dropped into Findlay Market to register voters? (She did just that at Cleveland's West Side Market Saturday.) Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., James Taylor and the Dixie Chicks were in town the same night for political benefit concerts.

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Election 2004 section

All the attention from Hollywood last weekend almost overshadowed the visitors from Washington.

Both presidential candidates visited the region over a span of 32 hours.

And tonight, Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University will be the nationally televised backdrop for the vice presidential debate between Republican incumbent Dick Cheney and Democratic Sen. John Edwards.

With more than 1,000 credentialed reporters and photographers covering the debate, satellite trucks were everywhere Monday in Cleveland. Every hotel room in the city was booked, and the campaign led every local newscast.

Cleveland's autumn comes about three weeks before Cincinnati's, which is only part of the reason it seems like the week before the election here.

Most of the activity in the Cleveland area is Democratic, of course - and not just because that's where Ohio's Democratic voters are. For the Kerry campaign, northeast Ohio is the poster child for the "failed economic policies" of the Bush Administration.

The number of jobs lost in northeast Ohio counties over the past four years is exceeded only by the number of new voters registered in the last four months.

The Cleveland metropolitan area has lost more than 100,000 jobs since 2000. But the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections is hiring - it needs temporary workers to help process tens of thousands of new voter registration cards.

On Monday, political activists filed through the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections with fistfuls of new voter registration forms right up until the office closed at 9 p.m.

That's the work of Democratic "527" groups - those well-financed independent groups that aren't supposed to coordinate with the Kerry campaign but are free to register Democratic voters and get them to the polls.

One of those groups is America Coming Together, financed in part by billionaire George Soros - with a boost from the Boss.

Springsteen was the top bill Saturday at a concert to benefit America Coming Together, drawing 19,000 fans and Kerry supporters to Cleveland's Gund Arena.

Not all the songs were political, but many were. Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" drew new meaning from the war in Iraq. And on domestic policy, the bands offered up Springsteen's "Youngstown" and R.E.M.'s "Bad Day.''

"It's the music, but it's also the whole energy of the election," said Rick Kluchin, an insurance executive from Chagrin Falls attending the concert on his 50th birthday. "Cleveland is the place to have this. It's the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, and it's ground zero in the election."

Kluchin, who paid $350 for the tickets, said he's never been particularly political before this year, and usually votes for the man rather than the party.

"This state has fallen way behind everybody. It's the worst state in the country to do business in," he explained. "Cleveland was a top 10 city 50 years ago. We're at a crossroads."

Sitting three rows behind Kluchin was Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Cleveland, the former "boy mayor" who has led Cleveland's progressive movement for 37 years.

"Democracy is a little like a rock concert," he opined. "There's all kinds of voices and instruments that when you put them together, they make beautiful music. But if all you hear is the drums of war - of course, it's not very attractive."

After the concert, the rockers retreated to an exclusive Cleveland nightclub, where they met up with the likes of Chad Lowe, Swank, Marisa Tomei, Steve Buscemi, Kyra Sedgwick and Martin Sheen - who fanned out into working-class neighborhoods and everyday gathering places to register voters and boost turnout.

Though their time was being donated, their tour bus was rented by Bring Ohio Back, a 527 group whose previous activity consisted mainly of a response ad to attacks on Kerry's military service.

A more appropriate name would be Bring Cleveland Back. None of the $234,500 raised by the group as of Sept. 4 came from an Ohio contributor south of Wooster. Mayor Jane Campbell's campaign committee is a founding contributor.

At the annual Oktoberfest craft fair in Boardman Township south of Youngstown, Juliana Margulies (ER, The Grid) guided 51-year-old Kathy Arnal of Austintown through filling out a voter registration form.

"I lived in California for four years and never saw a movie star," Arnal said, beaming. "It's amazing that I met so many at Oktoberfest in Boardman."

Some, of course, resent out-of-state celebrities telling Ohioans how to vote.

"That's what they said about Northerners during the civil rights movement," said Rabbi Simeon Kolko of Boardman, who brought his 6-year-old son in hopes of seeing the The West Wing's fictional president Martin Sheen. (He didn't show.)

Not everyone thinks the celebrity attention on Ohio is a good thing.

Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey, a Democrat who endorsed Bush for president, excoriated the "Hollywood leftists" in a blistering speech at a Bush rally in Cuyahoga Falls, even as the celebs were registering voters at a senior center a few miles south in Akron.

He said the Democratic Party had ceased to be the party of middle America. After all, the Ohio Democratic Party named as its "Democrat of the Year" the former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer, McKelvey noted.

"I'm told as a Democrat I must honor a man whose last show had 600-pound Sumo wrestlers in a pool of Jello," he said, prompting bursts of prolonged laughter.

McKelvey's campaigning for Bush is an obvious annoyance to Democrats.

"I can tell you the job loss in Youngstown is so bad, the work McKelvey has done is on par with what (Gov. Bob) Taft has done and the president has done," said Akron Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "The three of them ought to get together and do a comedy routine.

"But I guess you don't see Bush embracing Bob Taft right now," he said.

chart If West Chester - where Bush brought out an estimated 50,000 supporters a week ago - is the president's base, no one doubts that Kerry could attract a similar crowd in Cleveland. Pollster Eric Rademacher of the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research said he expects both candidates to retreat into their bases as Election Day draws nearer, in an effort to show the rest of the country how much support they have in Ohio.

But there's also a campaign going on behind enemy lines. Just as Cincinnati Democrats try to dampen overwhelming Bush majorities, Summit County Republican Chairman Alex Arshinkoff thinks he can win for Bush by getting out northeastern Ohio Republicans.

When the Summit County Republican Party carefully screened the audience for Bush's rally in Cuyahoga Falls on Saturday, it wasn't just for security, Arshinkoff said.

He told the audience of 19,000 that they should all expect phone calls asking that they volunteer with the campaign - especially in the last 72 hours.

"Take some vacation," he said. "There's going to be members of the (United Auto Workers) at every polling location. They get the day off, folks."

Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said the Kerry campaign has Democrats in Cincinnati as energized as they've ever been. But when the campaign decides on expensive ad buys or door-to-door campaigns, Cleveland is more likely to get the attention.

"When you look at the map, there's a million votes in Cuyahoga County. Eighty percent of voters are Democratic in Youngstown," Trevas said. "The rest of the state is smaller, more sparse and spread out. You don't have 20 counties where you can reach everybody in the same market, like you have in Cleveland."

VP debate tonight

Who: Vice President Dick Cheney vs. Sen. John Edwards

When: 9 p.m. EDT

Where: Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland

Cheney's strategy: Portray Edwards and John Kerry as lacking resolve for war on terror; may criticize Edwards' trial lawyer background.

Edwards' strategy: Portray Cheney as architect of Iraq war; may criticize Cheney's Halliburton links.

Impact: Can Cheney blunt Democrats' apparent surge since the Bush-Kerry debate?

Next: Bush vs. Kerry, Friday in St. Louis


Enquirer staff writer Sharon Coolidge contributed from Youngstown.

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com

Campaigns war over Cleveland
Voter signups record in Ohio
Ohio court race attracts big money
Kerry slams Bush on stem-cell issue
Blackwell dismissive after Jackson blasts voting rule
Nader sues to be included on Ohio ballot
Bush enacts more tax cuts as he campaigns
Cheney-Edwards debate takes on increased importance
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