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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

A Gubernatorial Comeback For The Democrats?

Great Lakes region could be the key

By Stuart Rothenberg

For the past four years, the GOP has had a virtual lock on Great Lakes states' governors. With Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, John Engler in Michigan, George Voinovich in Ohio, Jim Edgar in Illinois and Arne Carlson in Minnesota, the region has become a Republican bastion. Only Indiana has had a Democratic governor during the past four years.

 Rothenberg's 1998 Senate Ratings

But this year, Democrats have good opportunities in at least three of those states -- Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois -- as well as a long-shot opportunity in Michigan.

In Ohio, former state attorney general Lee Fisher will be the Democratic nominee against Robert Taft, who is currently Ohio's secretary of state. Even GOP insiders worry that Fisher, who was barely defeated for re-election in a Republican tidal wave in 1994, could give the uncharismatic Taft a serious problem.

In Illinois, the GOP nominee, Secretary of State George Ryan, faces a very stiff challenge from Rep. Glenn Poshard (D). Poshard, who comes from downstate, is pro-life, opposes gun control and doesn't take political action committee money. Geographically and on the issues, he is a nightmare for Ryan, who has been in public life for years and could easily be out-hustled by the Democratic congressman. Republicans hope that retiring Gov. Edgar's good poll numbers will be all that Ryan needs to win election, but that may be wishful thinking.

In Minnesota, the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination, St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, has run into a few problems in his route toward the party endorsing convention. Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson and former gubernatorial hopeful Allen Quist are also seeking the nomination.

No matter who wins the Republican nomination, the Democrats will have a strong candidate. The front-runners for their nomination appear to be Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III and Mike Freeman, who ran four years ago and is the son of a former governor. State Sen. Ted Mondale hopes his money and name will help him in the primary, since he won't compete for the party endorsement.

The Republicans remain solid favorites in Michigan, as Gov. John Engler seeks a third term. While the Democrats have a multi-candidate field, the favorite for their nomination is Larry Owen, who has served as mayor of East Lansing. He has some personal wealth, won the early backing of organized labor and is expected to run an aggressive campaign.

In Wisconsin, the Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, looks secure. The same goes for Pennsylvania's Ridge. Thompson's opponent likely be former National Football League Players Association director Ed Garvey, who ran statewide before and didn't exactly impress. Ridge also hasn't drawn a top opponent, and Keystone State Democrats are conceding the election.

The Republicans hope to hold on to most or all of the region's governorships, but that would be a major feat. For the Democrats, the Great Lakes could be the start of their gubernatorial comeback.

GOP has an opportunity in Ohio's 6th C.D.

Ohio 6 Democrat Ted Strickland knows what it's like to both win and lose this south Ohio district, and Republicans believe that they have an excellent opportunity to defeat the Democratic congressman, as they did in 1994. But Strickland, who regained his seat two years later, is a fighter, and his fate depends, in part, on the GOP primary.

Three major Republicans are in the race: former Congressman Frank Cremeans, Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister and businessman Michael Azinger.

Cremeans and Azinger are consistent conservatives, while Hollister is more moderate, especially on the issue of abortion.

Some grass-roots conservatives doubt Cremeans's ability to win and hold the seat, and they have begun to move toward Azinger. While a conservative should have an advantage in this district for the GOP nomination, two right-of-center candidates could easily divide the vote, and even conservative activists fear that is exactly what is happening.

Hollister, a former local elected official, has the support of much of the party establishment (including endorsements from Gov. George Voinovich and U.S. Representative John Boehner), and she trying to run as a conservative herself.

Cremeans has attacked both Strickland and Hollister and generally ignored Azinger. Azinger doesn't have much money, but has started to sign up activists who backed Cremeans last time.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Strickland, who already knows that he will be a top GOP target and has about $300,000 in the bank. The district's competitiveness makes this a race to watch, but the Republicans can't afford to carve themselves up in a nasty primary that leaves bitter feelings.

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Monday April 13, 1998

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