COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republicans eager to defeat Ohio's senior U.S. senator in 2012 are grappling with a field of potential contenders that includes feisty former elections chief Ken Blackwell, a new state treasurer and a former state senator who has never won statewide.
Recent polls show Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown with a comfortable lead so far over Blackwell, state Treasurer Josh Mandel and former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin. But the race is young and Republicans believe Brown's left-of-center politics give them a good chance of recapturing the seat Mike DeWine lost in 2006.
With almost a year and a half to go before Election Day, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already begun its attack on Brown. Spokesman Jahan Wilcox says the committee will emphasize that Brown "has spent the last 18 years in Washington maxing out the government credit card, raising taxes and driving up our debt."
Democrats have seized on Blackwell's potential candidacy with equal vigor, painting him as an extremist to the far right of average Ohioans.
A seasoned campaigner, Blackwell relishes Democrats' attacks — perhaps even more so because he's on the road promoting a new book, "Resurgent: How Constitutional Conservatism Can Save America."
The former state treasurer, secretary of state and GOP gubernatorial candidate even recently re-tweeted a Twitter posting by Ohio Democrats that blasted positions he states in the book. He thanks them for reading and spreading the word on his views.
"Dogs don't bark at parked cars so they must know I'm on the move," Blackwell said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Ohio Democratic Party press secretary Justin Barasky says Blackwell and Coughlin have both supported a plan by congressional Republicans to send future Medicare beneficiaries shopping for health insurance in the private market — a plan he believes middle-class Ohio residents reject.
Blackwell is equally as well known by his enemies and his friends. He was at the helm as Ohio's top elections official in 2004, when the presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry hinged on Ohio's result. Bush's tight margin of victory — fewer than 118,000 votes of 5.6 million cast — was the subject of election challenges that linger to this day. At the same time, he is a darling of social conservatives and a high-profile spokesman on the national stage for tea party principles of limited government and lower taxes.
Blackwell told the AP he will decide whether he'll run after his book tour ends later in June.
"I have no doubt in my mind that I could win a primary, and I have no doubt in my mind that I can raise the $18 million to $20 million I think is going to be necessary to win the seat," Blackwell said. "The issue will be whether I want to make nice with people I don't particularly care to make nice with, and whether I believe I can have the most impact inside the Senate or outside the Senate."
As his comments suggest, Blackwell and his party haven't always gotten along. Party leaders urged him not to run for governor in 1998, and allowed a three-way primary in 2006 that cost him $5 million in cash that he could have used in the general election against Democrat Ted Strickland, which he lost badly.
Coughlin's role in a failed effort in 2008 to unseat Summit County GOP Chairman Alex Arshinkoff, one of Ohio's most powerful party bosses, could be a factor in his political future. Arshinkoff helped elect Gov. John Kasich and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, a woman whose political career he helped create.
The 33-year-old Mandel, a U.S. Marine veteran and former lawmaker with strong fundraising skills, would appear to be a leading choice for the Ohio GOP at the moment. But a vicious anti-Muslim ad he ran against his opponent during his campaign for treasurer, and the fact he is looking at a Senate run so soon after winning his first statewide election, could hurt his chances with voters, said Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck.
"It may not work against him — think Barack Obama, who wasn't in the Senate very long," Beck said. "But Democrats will certainly use it."
In an interview with the AP, Mandel insisted he still has not decided whether to run. A day earlier, he was raising money in Hawaii at the invitation of former Gov. Linda Lingle.
Beck said the field may yet be developing. Taylor or a veteran Republican congressman from Ohio — Jim Jordan, Pat Tiberi or Steve Latourette, for example — could decide to make a run. At this stage in the race, the winner oftentimes hasn't even entered the race.