By Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writer
PLAIN TWP.: The audience in GlenOak High School's auditorium confirmed what the polls have been saying — the race for the 16th Congressional District is up for grabs.
As U.S. Rep. John Boccieri and Jim Renacci, his Republican opponent, sparred on issues ranging from health care to their favorite television characters, the crowd flipped back and forth between applause and boos.
Renacci earned big applause when he described the health-care legislation Boccieri voted for as ''toxic.'' He got a less warm reception when he said he supports a U.S. Supreme Court case that opened the way for larger campaign donations.
Boccieri, D-Alliance, received cheers when he spoke against the case and garnered a mixed reaction when he talked about the health-care legislation he continues to support, despite some saying it may cost him his seat.
The 600 audience members who packed the auditorium of the school in Stark County's Plain Township will have the daunting task of deciding Nov. 2 which candidate would best represent them.
They enjoyed a more spirited exchange in this debate — the second between the two candidates but the first one-on-one exchange — which allowed for rebuttals and rebuttals to the rebuttals. The first debate, held in Wooster in late September, was a straight question-and-answer, with no follow-ups permitted.
That first meeting also included Jeffrey Blevins, the Libertarian candidate in the race. Neither he nor Robert Ross, a write-in candidate, were invited to participate in the Monday night event, which was sponsored by the Repository and WHBC (1480-AM).
This second meeting was befitting for a race that has been described as one of the hottest and closest congressional contests in Ohio for a seat that both parties have identified as a major target.
The candidates touched on the nastiness of the campaign, with both blaming the other guy and his supporters for the worst mudslinging.
Renacci described what's being said about him as ''half-truths'' and ''whole lies.''
Boccieri said there have been attack ads on both sides and alluded to the contention that that U.S. Chamber of Commerce has funneled money provided by foreign countries and corporations to his opponent. He described this as ''un-American'' and ''un-patriotic,'' earning cheers.
In the middle
Boccieri described himself as a moderate who will work to unite the two parties.
''I'm proud of my record in Washington,'' he said. ''One of the loneliest places is in the middle.''
Renacci disagreed with Boccieri's portrayal, referring to one group that placed Boccieri between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich in his voting record.
''You must be a lonely man,'' he said, getting lots of applause.
The debate included some less traditional questions, including a set of questions the candidates were supposed to answer in two words. Both struggled to keep to the limit.
Asked to describe Washington, Boccieri answered ''besieged by special interests.''
Renacci answered, ''Toxic. Out of touch.''
''That's four,'' said Gayle Beck, the Repository's editorial page editor and one of two panelists in the debate.
''If he can't count now, how's he going to count when he gets to Washington?'' Boccieri quipped.
Boccieri named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the greatest president of the 20th century, while Renacci chose Ronald Reagan, earning cheers from many in the audience.
Renacci was momentarily stumped trying to come up with the greatest female politician. He went with Robin Laubaugh, who succeeded him as Wadsworth mayor.
''I can tell you who it's not: Sarah Palin,'' Boccieri said, going on to give Hillary Clinton as his answer, getting a lukewarm response.
Later in the debate, Renacci struggled to name his favorite television character, ultimately picking Spider-Man.
''He didn't have strength but he did have his web and the ability to fight back,'' Renacci said. Boccieri went with Superfriends, because they stood for ''truth, justice and the American way.''
The audience included die-hard supporters convinced that their candidate would be the best to represent the diverse district that covers Stark and Wayne counties and parts of Ashland and Medina counties.
Three Boccieri supporters stood outside the high school by a hand-painted sign that took two weeks to make. ''Elect John Boccieri — the workingman's truest friend,'' it declared in red, white and blue letters.
''I've known him for 10 years,'' said Carl Miller of Carrollton, who doesn't live in the 16th District but has been helping with Boccieri's campaign. ''He's the most honest and sincere politician I've ever met. He would do anything for anyone — day or night — it doesn't matter.''
Jayne Neal, of Shreve in Wayne County, is equally enthusiastic about Renacci. She said he shares her conservative values.
''I got faith in Jim,'' said Neal, who wore a Renacci T-shirt and has been volunteering with his campaign. ''He's worked hard. He's been working hard for 18 months. He's going to show the people who they should send to Washington.''
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.