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Buckeye Battle

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Buckeye Battle
Ohio's Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown discuss Iraq, immigration, oiland their heated race for the Senate.

Newsweek
Brian Braiker

It's a political platitude to posit that "as Ohio goes, so goes the nation." But if it's true, the GOP is probably a bit nervous about the Buckeye state. Most Ohio polls are showing that if the midterm elections were held today, the state would have a new senator. Democrat Sherrod Brown, the progressive congressman from Avon, has taken a narrow lead to unseat two-term incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine

Both parties are pulling out all the stops for their respective candidates: President George Bush has plans to attend a private fund-raiser for the senator in Ohio and both former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain will lend their support. On the other side of the ticket, Sens. Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton have thrown their high-wattage support behind Brown.

DeWine has had a difficult year for a senator from a right-leaning state. He upset fellow conservatives by joining the so-called Gang of 14 -- a bipartisan group of senators who made a pact to avoid a showdown on the president's judicial nominees. A coin-investment scandal in Ohio also appears to be hurting the GOP statewide, making a Democratic pickup there a real possibility.

But DeWine, a popular incumbent and widely perceived as a moderate nice guy, might not be so easy to unseat. As the president's approval ratings have floundered, DeWine's mild divergence from the party line might help him stave off a Democratic victory.

NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker recently spoke with both contenders in the battle for the Buckeye state. Excerpts:

Republican Sen. Mike DeWine

NEWSWEEK: John McClelland, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said that this race is "vitally important to the Republican Party as a whole." Do you see it that way?
Mike DeWine: [Laughs.] I always try to focus on my race and my opponent.

You're not looking at the rest of the national arena?
No, I don't and I never have. Even when I ran for county prosecutor in 1976, I tried to keep the national race out of it. When I've run for Congress or U.S. Senate, I've tried to focus on the race at hand. I think Ohio voters understand that this race is between Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown, not somebody else.

It's gotten to be a very tight race, Brown is ahead in some polls. Are you nervous at all?
No. I've done this for 30 years. I've had tough races before. This is a tough race. Ohio has always been a competitive state. I was the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate in a quarter century when I was elected the first time.
You have a reputation of being one of the senators more likely to reach across the aisle. Do you see yourself as a moderate?
I'll let other people do labels. I see myself as a problem solver. The fact is, I spent a long time getting to the Senate and I didn't want to waste any time. I resolved that I wasn't going to spend a lot of time giving hot political speeches. What I was going to do was try to get things done. The only way I've been able to do that is to reach across the aisle and work with people of both parties.

What about issues like the war in Iraq? When Democrats voted against a resolution that would equate the conflict there with the war on terror and voted against vowing to "complete the mission," the National Republican Senatorial Campaign accused them of voting to "cut and run in Iraq."
I've never used that term.

But that "cut and run" term has been popping up a lot. Does it accurately describe how you would characterize your opponent?
Look, it's just not a term I use. This war has had a big impact on Ohio, a big impact on this country. We all want to see our troops out of there just as soon as humanly possible. I don't think setting a deadline is helpful. We have to make sure the Iraqi troops are trained and are able to take over and the government there is stable enough to do the job. As soon as the circumstances on the ground dictate we can leave, we will be out of there and should be out of there. I don't think anybody can tell when that date is.

Saddam's gone, the new cabinet has formed. What circumstances would dictate we can leave?
When Iraqis are able to handle it themselves. We're working just as quickly as we can to make sure they're trained and ready to do that and their government has come together and is ready to do that.

Can you talk about your approach to gas?
There's two ways of approaching the gas issue. Short term, I co-wrote the NOPEC bill [No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act], which we passed in the Senate, which gives the Justice Department the authority to sue the OPEC countries for antitrust violations for fixing prices and for rigging the market. It's not the panacea, but it would help. In the long run, this country has to move away from oil. I think we need to have a program similar to what John Kennedy did when he said we'll put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Do you see this as a national-security issue?
It clearly is a national-security issue. The interesting thing is the American people are ahead of the politicians. The American people understand this to be a national-security issue. They don't want us dependent on the Saudis, they don't want us dependent on [President Hugo] Chavez in Venezuela. They don't want us dependent on Iran. They get it that we're funding people who do not have the best interests of the United States at heart.
Has the oil lobby played a role in keeping the politicians behind the public on this?
No! I think that's a gross oversimplification.

You voted in favor of the immigration bill.
I voted in favor of the Senate bill. It provides 12,000 new border patrol agents; it provides for 5,000 new Interior agents. It provides for aerial reconnaissance. It provides, probably most importantly, for a national database and a card that will be tamperproof. It is also a significant reform of the guest-worker program. Bring the 12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows and put them into the system so we know who they are and keep track of them and provide a real system by which they can earn their way toward citizenship if they pay a fine, learn English, stay out of trouble and continue to work.

Back at home, how worried are you that the "Coingate" investment scandal [involving GOP fund-raiser and coin deal Thomas Noe] is going to affect the course of the election?
I have run in years where the climate was wonderful. I've run in years where the climate was more difficult. I ran in '76 when Jimmy Carter swept Ohio. I ran in '82 when Reaganomics was not a good word, and we were electing very few Republicans to Congress, and I was elected. So I've run in tough years before.

You voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
That's a nice segue. [Laughs.]

We like to cover as much ground as possible here. Was that vote just a distraction? Conventional wisdom had it that the proposed ban was more about sending a message to the more conservative voters.
Two years ago I voted the same way. It's not a new position for me.

You're coming to New York.
I'm coming to New York on Monday [June 26]. Before that we have a more important event, our annual ice-cream social. Two thousand folks will be there. And my wife's already made about 165 pies -- she hasn't baked them yet. We'll have clowns, mimes, a barbershop quartet. We'll have a pie-eating contest, sack races. We've done it for 30 years. It's an amazing event this Sunday.

Sunday? You'll miss the gay pride parade in Manhattan.
Well, I guess I will.

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