Saturday night, an estimated 19,000 people turned out to a high-school football field in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, to hear Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Sherrod Brown, Ted Strickland, and the man who had been missing from the Obama Ohio campaign, John Glenn. It was about twice the number who had come to hear McCain announce his VP pick in Dayton the day before.
The third Big D event in three days -- Denver, Dayton, Dublin -- the latter two marked Ohio as the key D-Day battleground for the 2008 election.
The five Democratic superstars (damn, I almost called them celebrities) had bussed to Dublin together from Cleveland, where they attended the midday memorial service for departed congresswoman, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones.
Reportedly on smart orders of the B-man, those who had bussed down from Cleveland did not mention Sarah Palin by name. No need to inflame voters who might identify with the Caribou-butchering hockey-mom. Let media pundits do the dirty work for now.
But this forced the Obama Five into a kind of dangerous code language, because the hometown event in Dublin was all about a counter-move to Palin, even if she wasn't named.
Whoever had crafted Palin's speech on Friday (Rove? Schmidt?) aimed it squarely at an Ohio audience. In many ways it was a local speech, with former southwest Ohio Congressman Rob Portman acting as Master of Ceremonies. Toward that end, it had been shrewdly noticed that though he had stumped for Hillary in the primary, John Glenn had not yet come out for Obama in public. And so Palin paid homage to Glenn as John McCain's long-time right-stuff colleague and friend, in hopes of splitting off one last but most important PUMA on high.
Those hopes were dashed within thirty hours. On Saturday, Glenn opened with: "Let me just set straight where I stand (SARAH), I'm happy to be here to endorse the candidacy of Barack Obama and Joe Biden." Congratulations, Governor Palin, you delivered the orbitting astronaut down to earth.
Sherrod Brown had a much more difficult time speaking in code, and could have used the services of the Navajo Code Talkers who presented the colors at the Denver Convention. Brown introduced Ted Fifty-Fifty Strickland as "the best governor in the country." He said it twice, the second time elaborating: "Evidence suggests that Ted really is the best governor in the country." The obvious implication was that Strickland is a better man than the woman just named as John McCain's running mate.
Sherrod, we love ya, you're a terrific U.S. Senator, and we know what you were trying to say. BUT PLEASE DON'T SAY THAT EVER AGAIN, and especially don't say it when you come to southern Ohio.
You meant to imply that Sarah Palin is not a very good governor, and you were under orders not to say her name. But, Ted Strickland? Oh really? The man who said on NPR after the primary that Obama's chances in Ohio are "fifty-fifty...because of the nature of the state"? (What nature that is, the Governor did not say.)
Is Strickland a better governor than Kathleen Sebelius, the woman Obama might have picked as running mate? Is Strickland better than Ed Rendell or John Corzine, governors who also were in the Clinton camp, but who made much smoother and faster transitions to Obama?
I could go on about Ted Strickland, who is now locked in battle with SEIU and other major unions, who has shamelessly shilled for the coal and nuclear industries, and who isn't even on the ballot this year. But let's leave it at this -- he isn't the best governor in the country. Saying that he is undermines the credibility of the speaker. Making Ted Shame on You Strickland the centerpiece of the Obama Ohio campaign is a formula for losing the state this year. And so far, Ted Strickland has been the predominant Obama surrogate to appear in the entire southern portion of the state.
That may not have been so important, until Sarah Palin became the Republican presumptive nominee for Vice President, a nominee aimed at winning Ohio for the McCain ticket, and doing it with populist appeal. Palin, on Friday, went after "the old boy network" by name, and that was southern Ohio code for the Appalachian Ohio Democratic machine -- the machine that produced, nurtured, and is now led by "the best governor in the country."
Let me put this in starkest terms. The Republicans know that the corrupt Democrats of southern Ohio are the principal bane of our everday existence. They are the ones, serving on county boards of commissioners, development, and elections, collaborating with congressional Republicans and federal agencies, who are responsible for the region's profound and continuing immiseration.
In my county, in the midst of the election campaign, the local Democratic officials are about to embark on a "development" junket to China, paid for by a federal agency. Just before the 2006 election, they went to France.
McCain now has a running mate who speaks directly to the popular revulsion with this crew, and the figurehead leader of that crew is Ted Strickland. He's the anti-populist native son of southern Ohio. And southern Ohio still commands the lion's share of the undecided voters in the state.
The great debate about whether Palin will help or hurt McCain's prospects has an easy answer. She will have a polarizing influence. Obama strongholds on the coasts will now go even more strongly for Obama, and McCain may lose points in his strongholds, too, in states like Texas and Tennessee, where national media assaults on Palin's palid experience will find their mark.
But in the key battlegrounds of Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri, where the campaign will hinge on candidate appearances and the intensive groundgame of social networking through churches and community associations, Palin will be an enormous plus for McCain.
The answer is not to attack Sarah Palin, which is guaranteed to backfire. The answer is to mimic her. The Obama campaign needs to get its populist, anti-corruption, anti-machine balls back. The detente that was reached with the Strickland machine after the Ohio primary was perhaps necessary to overcome the party divide. But now the Republicans have seized on that overt act of appeasement with the machine. They are calling us on it. Will we answer the call?
Barack Obama has offered "new politics." But the people of Appalachia, and other hill countries like upstate Michigan and Montana, are asking whether we will see those new politics, too. Or were those promises limited to the liberation of the inner cities? It's a valid question. What is Obama offering to the rural poor to whom John Edwards originally offered so much?
The Obama road show will head to south Ohio in coming weeks. We can't get John Edwards as a surrogate now. But if the replacements sent to south Ohio are limited to Ted Strickland and his ilk, I predict we will lose the state of Ohio, no matter how strong the enthusiasm in the cities seems.
Palin is indeed a game changer. Her naming demands a strategic change in the Obama camp. So here's the short version of what's required: Stick Ted Strickland in his Columbus closet for the remainder of this campaign, or send him to Toledo. But don't bring him anywhere near his home, where we know the man. Instead, have Barack and Joe Biden come alone, no "good ole boys," or with true popular heros like Erin Brokovich, who can match Palin's community appeal -- and for the sake of all that is holy, NOT Hillary and Bill, the ultimate insiders.
It's still gonna be a ball-buster in Ohio, but we can win if we go back to the orginal inspiration of this campaign, and extend the promise of integrity in government to those who are most in need.