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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Is DeWine scared or smart in choosing not to debate his primary opponents?

mike dewine
JOHN MINCHILLO
/
AP

Hiding in plain sight.

That's the trick Mike DeWine is trying to pull off as he faces a difficult path to the Republican nomination for a second term as Ohio's governor.

DeWine has told the Ohio Debate Commission he won't be participating in the commission's debate for GOP gubernatorial candidates on March 29, which will be held at Central State University in Greene County, a stone's throw from DeWine's home near Cedarville.

The incumbent governor wants no part of it. His campaign staff says he is the "most accessible" governor in Ohio history.

Accessible except to people who want to take his job away from him.

DeWine's absence from the debate stage will mean that the "debate" will consist of DeWine's two main opponents in the GOP primary — former congressman and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Jim Renacci and central Ohio farmer Joe Blystone, who came out of nowhere to attract an almost cult-like following among Ohio GOP voters.

The other candidate, former state representative Ron Hood of Pickaway County, hasn't responded to the commission's invitation to debate. Hood filed his petitions to run and has pretty much disappeared from the face of the Earth.

So, it's Blystone versus Renacci. Not sure exactly who would want to watch an hour of the two of them arguing about who is the bigger lap dog for Donald Trump. At least with DeWine involved, there would be a reason to watch.

What's DeWine's problem?

Is he just a scaredy-cat, afraid of the mighty rhetorical skills of a Renacci or Blystone?

I hardly think so.

Or is he just a guy who looks at the poll numbers, knows he is at the top of the pack and doesn’t want to do anything to upset the apple cart? Does he just prefer not to go on statewide TV and radio and be Trumped to death by these two?

It’s not as if the guy has never debated before. Four years ago, he debated his Democratic opponent for governor, Rich Cordray and still managed to win the election.

There's a 1992 video on YouTube of U.S. Senate candidate DeWine, as lieutenant governor, in a debate with John Glenn, the Democratic incumbent. It's hilarious to watch now, given DeWine's sudden distaste for debate, as the Republican candidate whines about Glenn not agreeing to his proposal for a series of "Lincoln-Douglas style" debates from one end of the state to the other.

Glenn, of course, ignored him and then proceeded to thump him in the general election.

David Pepper, the former Ohio Democratic Party chair, ran against DeWine for Ohio attorney general in 2014. Pepper, as the challenger, wanted debates, of course, but it was not to be.

"We pushed for a Cleveland City Club debate, but didn't get it," Pepper said. "The only time we met face-to-face was in a couple of newspaper editorial page interviews. And the voters didn't see that."

Pepper said he had "pretty cordial" relations with DeWine during the campaign, but it was clear from the start DeWine was not a debater.

"I remember that in the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer endorsement interview, DeWine just wasn't very good at it," Pepper said. "He struggled with the facts; he got really mad and started pounding on the table."

Today, Pepper said, DeWine is "not in an environment where people question him. He doesn't like it."

Like it or not, DeWine's refusal to debate Renacci and Blystone is understandable.

"I think DeWine is politically correct to skip the debate," said David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. "His biggest threat right now is one opponent seizing the attention and imagination of Republican voters.

"The best-case scenario for such a debate is that DeWine comes across as the reasonable, level-headed one — but what good is that going to do you with today's Republican base voter?" Niven said.

Mack Mariani, professor of political science at Xavier University, agrees that not debating is "a good political move" for DeWine.

"It will deprive his opponents of oxygen and media attention," Mariani said. "It’s not without risk but he is still the favorite and it will be difficult for any one of his other main opponents to emerge as a singular alternative when nobody is watching."

It seems that DeWine wants to be one kind of candidate in the primary — a candidate who doesn't stir up the hornet's nest of Trump's Ohio voters — and another kind of candidate for the general election campaign, a candidate who can try to win over Democrats and Independents and ride piggy-back on the accomplishments of the federal stimulus act, which he opposed and which passed Congress without a single Republican vote.

People generally react badly to two-faced politicians.

Mike DeWine is a big boy now — why won't he just suck it up and do the debate? These cats couldn't scare a mouse.

Or, as Niven put it:

"Imagine the irony of all of this — five decades in Ohio politics and your strategy for winning this primary vote is to hide from the voters."

The problem is, in politics, there really is no place to hide.