By Tom Troy
Toledo Blade politics writer
The race for governor of Ohio has narrowed to a 2-point gap as Democrats are showing more interest in the election that is now 10 days away, according to a poll commissioned by the Ohio Newspaper Organization.
Republican challenger John Kasich barely leads Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland 49-47 percent. The two-point difference is less than the margin of error of 3.3 percentage points and makes the race too close to call.
The poll was conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati for the group of eight large-city newspapers in Ohio, including the Akron Beacon Journal.
In the U.S. Senate race, Republican Rob Portman holds a commanding lead of 58-39 percent over Democrat Lee Fisher — a chasm that parallels the fundraising success Portman, a former congressman and Bush administration official, has had compared with Fisher, former state attorney general and current lieutenant governor.
Eric Rademacher, co-director of the institute, said: ''There's certainly an uptick in excitement on the Democratic side, which has allowed the race to become more competitive between Strickland and Kasich.
''It could break either way. Certainly, it's the case that Democratic excitement is increasing in the latest poll, but Republican excitement is also very high.''
Pollsters interviewed 839 likely voters by home phone and cell phone around the state Oct. 14-18.
Unlike the Senate race, both Kasich and Strickland have each raised enough money to engage in a spirited campaign through heavy TV and direct-mail advertising and live campaign events around Ohio.
Toledoan Heather Elliott said she's seen the ads and liked what they say about Strickland.
''I kind of like everything that he stands for. I think he's going to do what we need, and I just have a good feeling about him,'' said Elliott, 41, a billing clerk in a medical office and the mother of two teenagers.
''A lot of the [Strickland] commercials I have seen, maybe fair or unfair, they have swayed me'' against Kasich.
Kasich supporter Jim Haboustak, 65, of Cuyahoga County, said the Republican has the right approach to the economy.
''I think taxes are too high and I think the whole state is overregulated and I think it's partly contributing to driving away businesses,'' said Haboustak, a retired metallurgical engineer.
''I think we're due for a change. I don't appreciate Ted Strickland's policies, and I remember Kasich from when he was in Congress. I kind of liked his policies.''
Polling in the Ohio gubernatorial race has been volatile.
A survey by CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. on Oct. 20 put Strickland on top, 48-47 percent. One day earlier, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Kasich ahead 51-41. The Ohio Poll of Oct. 15 — conducted by the same institute that conducted the Ohio Newspaper Poll — showed Kasich's lead at 51-43.
The Ohio Newspaper Poll conducted in late September showed Kasich up 49-45 percent.
Since the September Ohio Newspaper Poll, the number of Democrats who described themselves as ''extremely interested'' increased from 29 percent to 36 percent in October, and Democrats are more likely to vote than before.
In the same period, the number of ''extremely interested'' Republicans jumped from 40 percent in September to 48 percent in the current poll.
How candidates stack up
While the poll shows some momentum for Strickland, other dynamics in the poll favor Kasich. Among voters who don't think they'll change their mind, Kasich leads 52-48 percent.
Respondents' opinions about the economy and taxation seemed to favor Kasich, who is known for having helped balance the federal budget in 1997 as chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee.
Respondents ranked Kasich as more likely than Strickland to ''bring needed change to Ohio'' by 49-39 percent, ''improve Ohio's economy'' by 45-41 percent, and lower Ohio's unemployment rate by 42-37 percent.
Respondents said by a 55-27 percent split that Strickland is more likely than Kasich to ''raise my taxes.''
And respondents — 49-25 percent — strongly believe that rolling back tax cuts on household incomes above $250,000 would ''hurt the economy'' rather than ''help the economy.''
Questions about honesty and empathy moved the needle in favor of Strickland, who is an ordained United Methodist minister.
Respondents believed that Strickland better ''understands the economic problems people in Ohio are having'' (45-42 percent), is more honest and truthful (39-32 percent) and is more willing to take a stand even if it's unpopular (42-38 percent).
And yet, given respondents' positive impressions of Strickland's qualities, they also consider Strickland more of a ''typical politician'' than Kasich, by 51-30 percent. Strickland is currently in office while Kasich has been out of elective office for about a decade.
On the question of which one ''shares my values,'' both got 41 percent.
''Because the economy has had such a great focus, there has been less talk about the politics of values in this particular election,'' Rademacher said.
Regional, racial divides
Kasich's strongest support is on the west side of Ohio, including southwest, central and northwest, possibly reflecting the Republican dominance as well as the fact that Kasich's congressional district was in central Ohio.
Strickland's strongest areas are in the heavily Democratic northeast and the economically hard-hit southeast, which he served as a member of Congress before his election as governor in 2006.
Both candidates enjoy support in their own parties. Strickland gets 90 percent of the Democratic vote and 40 percent of independents, while Kasich gets 84 percent of the Republican vote and 46 percent of the independent vote.
Males prefer Kasich 53-43 percent, while women split 50 percent for Strickland and 45 percent for Kasich. Women were more likely to be undecided or to prefer another candidate.
Strickland was supported by 88 percent of African-Americans and 43 percent of whites, while Kasich was favored by 10 percent of the black respondents and 52 percent of white respondents.
Ads sway voter
Gwen Frisby, 29, a homemaker living in Sidney near Dayton, said she's planning to vote for Strickland because of the negative tone of the Republican ads against him.
''I think he's done probably as good as anybody can do in these times,'' Frisby said. ''It's almost more that I don't like how the Republicans are acting toward him, like it's his fault that we're in this mess.''
She said Ohio relies heavily on manufacturing and when the economy dips, so does employment. Laying the blame on Strickland for the loss of nearly 400,000 jobs since he took office in 2007, as Kasich does, is ''inflammatory and misleading,'' Frisby said.
In the Senate race, Frisby said she doesn't know Portman as well, but favors political balance between Congress and the White House. ''I think there are some very good things about Republicans. We just can't keep spending money. There has to be some frugality involved, so there has to be some balance,'' Frisby said.
Fred Millington II of Westerville, near Columbus, wants Kasich to win because he wants a lower-profile government.
''He's talking about maybe repealing the state income tax. I like the thought of that,'' said Millington, 43, who works for a plumbing supply company. ''He is financially a conservative guy. He wants smaller government and he wants less intrusion in my life.''
He said he views Strickland as ''definitely pro-government'' and more prone than Kasich to waste money on projects he doesn't support, such as the proposed high-speed train from Cincinnati to Cleveland.
Tom Troy of the Toledo Blade can be contacted at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.