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0000017a-3b40-d913-abfe-bf44a4f90000Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU news team as the politics reporter and columnist in April 2012 , after 30 years of covering local, state and national politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. On this page, you will find his weekly column, Politically Speaking; the Monday morning political chats with News Director Maryanne Zeleznik and other news coverage by Wilkinson. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974, as well as 16 presidential nominating conventions. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots, the Lucasville prison riot in 1993, the Air Canada plane crash at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983, and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. And, given his passion for baseball, you might even find some stories about the Cincinnati Reds here from time to time.

Rob Portman, Incumbent Underdog? Well, Maybe Not

  If Ohio’s junior U.S. senator, Rob Portman, is a man afraid of losing his job in next year’s election, he didn’t let on Saturday morning in the parking lot of a strip center in Terrace Park where his local campaign office is located.

Under gray and foreboding skies, Portman held U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup’s nearly two-year-old son in his arms while Wenstrup introduced him to a crowd of well over 100 people – the majority of them young people – who had come out on a Saturday morning to work phone banks and knock on doors for Portman’s re-election campaign.

The campaign office is only a few blocks away from the Republican senator’s Terrace Park home; and it was his first stop on a day-long tour, visiting campaign offices in Dayton, Columbus, Akron, Cleveland, and, today, in Toledo.

But Saturday morning, he was home, among old friends, some of whom have been volunteering for his campaigns since he first ran for the U.S. House in 1993.

“Ohio could determine who the next president of the United States is; we know that,’’ Portman told the crowd in the parking lot. “And the Democrats understand that. That is why they are dumping all those negative campaign ads on me.”

To win re-election, Portman said, “we can’t rely on an air war;  we have to have the grassroots one-on-one voter contact.”

And since that office opened in the spring, Portman’s campaign staff says volunteers have made 250,000 voter contacts out of that office alone.

Statewide, Portman’s army of volunteers has targeted 600,000 “swing voters” – voters who could end up voting for Hillary Clinton for president next year but be persuaded to vote for a Republican for the U.S. Senate.

“We don’t have to win over all of them,’’ said Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager. “We just have to peel off enough of them to make a difference. That can be the game-changer.”

Credit Howard Wilkinson
Sen. Rob Portman (r.) with college student campaign volunteers Saturday

 And the Portman campaign is in need of a game-changer, even though the election is nearly 13 months away.

Last week, Bowling Green State University released a poll done by Zogby Analytics which interviewed 804 likely Ohio voters on Oct. 16 and 17. Strickland led with 39.2 percentage points compared to 31.3 percent for Portman.

Earlier in the month, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Strickland with a three percentage point lead over Portman – just outside the 2.9 percent margin of error.

But, talking with WVXU inside the headquarters after the rally, Portman said there was good news in the Quinnipiac poll as well.

“Our net favorability is much higher than his,’’ Portman said, referring to Strickland, whom he assumes will be his opponent next year. He never mentions Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld who is challenging Strickland for the Democratic nomination.

“Net favorability” is a term political operatives and candidates use a lot – it is the difference between the percentage of voters who have a favorable view of you and those who have an unfavorable view. If the favorable number is higher than the unfavorable, that's good. If it's lower, that's bad. 

According to Quinnipiac, Portman has a net favorability of 25 percentage points while Strickland’s has dropped to nine percentage points.

But 38 percent of those polled by Quinnipiac said they don’t know enough about Portman to have an opinion. In the case of Strickland, 21 percent said they haven’t heard enough about him to have an opinion.

“Governors are generally better known than members of Congress,’’ Portman told WVXU.

And polls, he said, “go up and down. I’m not worried about it.”

In fact, having some weak poll numbers now is probably not all bad. It can stimulate more campaign fundraising if backers think you are running from behind.

Portman is certainly not behind in fundraising. As of Sept. 30, his campaign had $11 million in the bank. Strickland had but $1.5 million; and Sittenfeld’s campaign bank account stood at $784,000.

And both Portman and Strickland are going to end up getting considerable help from independent expenditure groups between now and next November. In fact, they already are.

Portman is a politician with a reputation as being easy-going and affable, but Strickland is able to get under his skin now and then.

Last Monday night, the Hamilton County Democratic Party held its annual fall fundraiser at Longworth Hall. It was one of the rare times that Strickland and Sittenfeld have been in the same room at the same time.

Both spoke to the crowd, and Strickland ignored Sittenfeld’s call for a series of debates around the state.

But he did mention his opponent’s name. And Portman’s too.

“I have never said a negative word about my opponent,’’ Strickland said, referring to the Cincinnati council member. “P.G. Sittenfeld is not my enemy. Rob Portman is my enemy.”

Referring to your opponent as the “enemy,’’ Portman told WVXU, “is part of the problem in Washington. I don’t believe you can be an efficient senator if you believe that the people on the other side are your enemy."

Portman said he has been willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, including Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

“We have different views on many issues,’’ Portman said. “But I try to work with them for the good of Ohio.”

The attitude that the other side is “the enemy,” Portman said, “is an attitude that has caused a lot of the gridlock in Washington. It’s part of the problem.”

Jennifer Donohue, a spokesperson for Strickland campaign, put out a statement saying that “Ted has said many times and will continue to say he thinks Sen. Portman is a nice guy and a wonderful family man; and he has absolutely nothing personal against him.”

But she said on issues like college affordability, protecting Medicare and Social Security, stopping “bad trade deals,” and other issues, “Senator Portman is on the wrong side for Ohio.”

Next year’s Senate race in Ohio is a high stakes affair – it could have a lot to say about which party controls the Senate after the 2016 election.

It’s not going to be about one candidate or another getting his nose out of joint over an off-the-cuff remark by his opponent.

It’s going to be won or lost in the kind of call centers Portman was visiting this weekend; and in troops of volunteers going door-to-door to make personal contact with voters.

Incredible amounts of money will be spent on the airwaves, but, in the end, it might be about dialing phone numbers and knocking on doors.

Portman’s team seems to get that. Strickland – presuming he is the nominee – and his allies in the Ohio Democratic Party do too, and will have to match the Republicans, call for call and door by door.

It’s going to be a wild ride.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.