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How to Win in Ohio: The Austerity Trap

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For Gov. Ted Strickland, Ohio's first-term governor and the first Democrat to serve since 1991, the 400,000 jobs lost during his tenure should spell certain political doom, especially in an election that is predicted to be both anti-incumbent and anti-Democrat. Yet polls show Strickland running even with his Republican challenger, John Kasich. The competitive race demonstrates how skillfully Strickland has presented himself as having a long-term answer to the economic debacle, and is perhaps a lesson for other Democratic governors in long-suffering states.

Strickland's plan to fix the state's economy is two-fold: create jobs and scale back government. He stresses green-job growth as a way to revitalize the state's flagging manufacturing sector. Ohio has used both state and stimulus money to train workers for green jobs that don't exist yet, but Strickland is still touting this as an effort that will ultimately help those most in need of "jobs that can't be outsourced," including displaced workers and residents of Appalachia.

Strickland, who hails from Appalachia himself and whose father worked in a steel mill, peppers nearly every speech with tales from his hard-scrabble life. The Stricklands triumphed through austerity, a fact that has become the basis of Strickland's other economic message. He laid off 5,000 state workers but kept in place tax cuts that have forced severe reductions in services across the state. Unions and progressives want the state to spend more to counteract the forces of recession, but voters seem to see state jobs as different from initiatives that spur private investment, as the green-job programs are meant to do. Strickland has been able to portray the quarter of a billion dollars in concessions from state-worker unions as an economic good.

But Ohioans are used to economic misery, and the state's 10.5 percent unemployment rate is in some ways just a capstone on decades of decline in the manufacturing sector. Strickland has been able to blame some of Ohio's economic woes on national and global forces beyond his control, such as the housing crash, which he says he was working to prevent even before the bubble burst.

Strickland may luck out in that Kasich, who once worked at Lehman Brothers and hosted a Fox News show, is running so far to the right that he has pledged to completely eliminate the state income tax. But Strickland's own tax-cutting stance makes it hard for him to ridicule Kasich's pledge, a lesson for other Democrats who have chosen to tack right on fiscal issues.

-- Monica Potts

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