WEST CHESTER, Ohio – For Republican activists in a party stronghold of swing-state Ohio, Thursday night’s first major presidential campaign debate in Cleveland will be must-see TV as the GOP starts deciding which candidate to support, volunteer for and write checks to.
There are plenty of shopping days left, but a lot to sort through with 17 announced candidates.
“I think it’s good that are so many, because it gives us choices,” said Lori Viars, a longtime conservative activist in Warren County. “There are quite a few horses in the race, so let’s get them out of the gate and watch them run for a while.”
The suburbs and small cities that form a crescent over the city of Cincinnati comprise a big GOP base. Ohio has 88 counties total, but four – Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren – in southwest Ohio have been delivering 12 percent or more of the Republican nominee’s votes in recent presidential elections. The region’s big margins for George W. Bush in 2004 helped lift him to the narrow Ohio victory he needed for re-election.
Chris Kelley, a political scientist at Miami University in Butler County, said the candidates need to attract early support from enthusiasts who will get involved in their campaigns and help fire up support in a state that history says Republicans need to reach the White House – none has without carrying Ohio.
“A good ground game is very important for the Republican candidates … to really try to solidify and motivate their voters in places where they are strong,” Kelley said.
One candidate in the field, of course, already has a ready-made network in Ohio – Gov. John Kasich, coming off a lopsided re-election last year. Kasich, who officially entered the race just two weeks ago but has been picking up ground in recent polling, has some detractors among southwest Ohio conservatives who dislike his support for Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and for the new Common Core school standards.
“He should be on the Democrats’ ticket,” said Sue Hardenbergh, who’s active in the GOP and the tea party in the eastern Cincinnati suburb of Anderson Township.
However, Harry Prestanski, of West Chester Township in Butler County, doesn’t agree with Republicans who criticize Kasich, saying he has solid conservative credentials overall.
“I hear it,” Prestanksi said. “But to be perfectly honest, I don’t understand it.”
Prestanski, who served as a Marine and now works on veterans’ issues, said Kasich’s policies have helped veterans and that he offers a strong presidential resume with congressional, governing and business experience.
Kelley thinks if Kasich gains momentum nationally, Ohio Republicans will rally behind him.
“It’s hard to go against the hometown favorite,” Kelley said.
Early Quinnipiac University polling has indicated another plus for Kasich – he starts with more support in a hypothetical matchup with Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in a state her husband Bill carried twice.
Prestanski hasn’t committed to a candidate yet and is also interested in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But he has struck billionaire businessman Donald Trump, leading in recent polls, off his list. He doesn’t like Trump’s recent criticism of John McCain’s background as a Vietnam prisoner of war.
“I think Trump is very interesting,” Hardenbergh said. “But he has never served in office, and that keeps him from having any track record. What we’ve learned about most politicians is that they say what they think you want to hear. But how will you truly govern?”
Ray Warrick, the Warren County Republican Party chairman, said Trump’s poll support is “no mystery,” because it reflects restlessness within the party after Obama twice beat what Warrick considers “old-style Republican nominees.”
“People I talk to are amused that Donald Trump is the leader of the pack,” Warrick said.
Warrick said there are several candidates he’s interested in, particularly Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Hardenbergh is watching Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and also likes Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as conservatives she can believe in.
Hardenbergh is a little concerned that the large field – even trimmed to 10 for the Fox News debate – will make it difficult for the best candidates to show off their strengths and differentiate themselves. But she’ll be watching to see.
“It makes for great television for people who love following politics,” Kelley said. “It’s hard not to eat this up.”