By Darrel Rowland
COLUMBUS: Ohio has never seen anything quite like this.
Three cities. Five days. Six debates. Ten candidates.
And perhaps one bleary-eyed electorate.
Fifty years after presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon brought political debates onto Americans' TV screens, the Buckeye State is getting inundated this week.
The final month of the campaign season kicks off with televised debates involving most of the statewide candidates governor, U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court, auditor and secretary of state. It might be the first time in state history that Ohioans can check out so many soliciting for their vote without leaving their couch.
The matchups can be game-changers, but that's more the exception than the rule, said Paul Beck, longtime political-science professor at Ohio State University.
Still, every candidate is probably dreaming of that long touchdown pass or opponent's fumble that will win over Ohioans, Beck said. But he wonders how many voters will even be paying attention, especially in the down-ticket races.
''The people who watch those debates tend to be more partisan in the first place and watch them through partisan filters,'' Beck said. ''Undecided voters probably
won't pay much attention.''
But even if the initial audience is small, what happens at the debate usually gets magnified by political spin merchants and the news media, he said.
The top-tier races likely will have less trouble attracting attention. The first governor's debate last month easily won the ratings battle in central Ohio for its time slot.
And there's already been trash-talking between the U.S. Senate campaigns of Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Republican Rob Portman ahead of their first matchup today.
''Ohioans are hoping Lt. Gov. Fisher brings some real ideas and plans to the debates, instead of the same tired, debunked, false attacks he's been using for the last 20 months against Rob Portman in an attempt to cover up his failures as the state's job czar, asleep at the switch while Ohio lost 400,000 jobs,'' said Portman campaign spokeswoman Jessica Towhey said.
Fisher spokeswoman Holly Shulman shot back: ''In these debates, voters will see that this election is a clear choice between Congressman Rob Portman who wants to keep tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, pass more of the same bad trade deals and give tax breaks to millionaires and Lee Fisher, who has spent his life on the ground in Ohio working to save and create jobs.''
The Senate hopefuls, vying to replace retiring Republican George Voinovich, meet up three times in nine days.
The Ohio Newspaper Organization, which includes the Akron Beacon Journal, is sponsoring tonight's one-hour debate. It will not be open to the public, but is scheduled to be televised live by C-SPAN.
After tonight's face-off in Toledo, they will get together at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Cleveland's City Club and at the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus on the evening of Oct. 12.
''Fisher is a good debater, and I think Portman is, too,'' Beck said.
But Fisher, down in the polls and lacking money for a meaningful TV advertising presence, needs a major turnaround in what likely will be his last chances to talk to Ohio voters.
''He needs to score some points, he needs to reverse the momentum . . . come up with a big play,'' Beck said.
The final governor's debate Thursday night holds even higher stakes for incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland and GOP challenger John Kasich, a former congressman and Lehman Brothers manager. Recent polls have showed the race tighter than earlier surveys that had Kasich ahead by double digits.
''If the race has really narrowed . . . it means that Strickland has gained some momentum, and Kasich has to worry about that,'' Beck said.
''Kasich can sometimes come on too strong, and voters can be put off by that. Strickland really needs to defend his record, and he needs to talk about it in a way that's credible.''
So far, the only statewide races without a scheduled debate are chief justice (one for Wednesday was canceled), attorney general and treasurer.