Ted Strickland Not Ready To Hand Ohio To Romney

A new Washington Post poll shows President Obama inching ahead of Mitt Romney in Ohio. The state swapped political allegiances in the past — going for President Obama in 2008, then going for a GOP governor in 2010. Former Governor Ted Strickland lost that race and is now a surrogate for the president. He joins guest host Celeste Headlee.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away.

Election Day is just a few weeks off, in case you needed a reminder. So both President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are busy making their pitches to voters.

And every four years, one of the states that gets the most love from candidates is the quintessential swing state, Ohio. But while it is a swing state, at this point, Ohio is largely decided. It includes both traditionally liberal cities - like Cleveland, which goes Democrat - and staunchly conservative, rural areas that generally go Republican.

In a moment, we'll get a GOP perspective on Ohio politics from Kenneth Blackwell, a former mayor of Cincinnati and a former secretary of state of Ohio. But first, we turn to a Democrat who knows the state's politics very well. Ted Strickland is the former governor of Ohio. He also had a major speaking role at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month in Charlotte, and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

TED STRICKLAND: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: So you took a bus tour yesterday and shadowed Mitt Romney's own bus tour of Ohio. It took you through Lima, Dayton, Cincinnati. So what do you think - I have to assume it's the economy. That's the most important issue. Is that safe?

STRICKLAND: Well, it's the economy, but it's also, I think, a deeper issue, perhaps, and that's the issue of trust. I think Ohioans are looking at these two candidates and trying to decide: Which of these two candidates can I really trust? Which of these two candidates is on my side and cares about me and the things that are important to me and my family? And I think that's obviously related to the economy and to jobs and economic opportunity. But I think it even gets to a deeper issue, and that's, you know, a more personal decision on the part of voters as to which of these candidates is worthy of their support.

HEADLEE: Well, that means, of course, that you're probably looking at the polls and you think Obama is winning that battle. The new poll from the Washington Post has President Obama edging ahead of Governor Romney 52 percent, to Romney's 44 percent. Does that mean - in your mind, at least - that Ohio voters trust the president more than they do Mitt Romney?

STRICKLAND: Well, I think they do, and I think the - you know, the recently released video showing Mr. Romney talking in a disparaging way about 47 percent of Americans has just added to that impression. And so I think that is why - at least at this point - President Obama has a five or six-point lead in most of the most recent polls, and I think that's why he's going to win Ohio this November. And if he does that, I think he'll be reelected, because, you know, no Republican in recent times has been elected president without winning the state of Ohio.

HEADLEE: Well, you're referring to the video that was taken from a fundraiser back in May of Mitt Romney talking about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay taxes and are not going to be convinced to vote for him. But I haven't seen anything so far from Ohioans, at least, that shows that message has really resonated, that that released video has made a difference in their vote. What are you seeing that's making you think it does?

STRICKLAND: Well, I just had a press conference a few moments ago with Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman and some ordinary citizens. One was a veteran. One was a retired individual. And we were talking about this issue, that Mitt Romney, basically, speaking with a group of very wealthy contributors, chose to speak in a very disparaging way about a group of people that includes veterans, includes senior citizens. It includes retired folks. It includes working folks who don't make enough money to qualify for the federal income tax.

So I think this is just part of a larger narrative that has developed over time, in my judgment, beginning with a revelation that Mr. Romney had a Swiss bank account, that he had invested in the Cayman Islands, that he was an outsourcer of American jobs while at Bain Capital, that he talked about enjoying firing people, talked about his wife having a couple of Cadillacs. You know, we could go on and on and on.

But it seems to me that, over a period of several months, Mitt Romney has acted and spoken in such a way as to create an impression in the minds of the American people that he does not understand their lives, that he lives in a different kind of world where, you know, wealth and privilege are predominant, and ordinary people just don't seem to be a part of that world.

HEADLEE: Well, it sounds, Governor Strickland, like you feel this race in Ohio, at least, is about the personalities, the characters of these two men. But again, let's return to the economy, because it seems the $64,000 question is: Who's responsible for the recovery in Ohio? Unemployment there stands at about 7.2 percent. That's better than the national average. The state has seen some very good growth numbers, as well.

I assume that you give President Obama credit for that, but what credit does Governor John Kasich take?

STRICKLAND: Well, very little, in my judgment. The recovery in Ohio started well before Governor Kasich was elected. It started in 2010. Unemployment...

HEADLEE: Under your administration, then?

STRICKLAND: Yes. In my administration. The last year of my administration, unemployment in Ohio declined by 1.6 percent. In the first year and a half of the Kasich Administration, unemployment declined an additional 1.7 percent.

So the recovery was well underway, and for two primary reasons, I believe: first, the Recovery Act, the so-called stimulus bill, which enabled me and enabled other governors across the country to keep our states from falling ever-deeper into a depression. And that was a huge benefit, and it enabled us to stabilize our states so that recovery could take hold.

And the second thing that's so important in Ohio was the saving of the American auto industry. One in every eight jobs in Ohio is related to the automotive industry, and President Obama - in the face of the naysayers like Mitt Romney, who said let Detroit go bankrupt - President Obama took decisive and courageous action, saved the American auto industry. And today, in Lordstown, Ohio and Toledo, Ohio and Cleveland - in the Cleveland area, people are working. Investments are being made.

And I believe those two things - the Recovery Act and the saving of the auto industry - are primarily responsible for what we're seeing emerge as a growing economy in Ohio.

HEADLEE: OK. We're going to talk a little bit more about the auto industry in a moment. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News, and I'm speaking with former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, talking about the state's politics and the role that will play in the 2012 presidential election.

I want to say that we've been using the New York Times figure, which is that one in 10 jobs in Ohio is linked to the auto industry. And I wanted to also clarify just a little, which is that Mitt Romney wrote the op-ed that was titled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." But an editor wrote the headline, instead.

But I wanted to get to something that you said at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, and you were talking about the auto industry. And let's take a listen, here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

STRICKLAND: It's been a long slog back, and we've still got a long way to go, but all over America, all over Ohio, men and women are going back to work with the pride of building something stamped made in America.

HEADLEE: So, as you said, as you pointed out, both at the DNC and just now, the auto industry is seeing a comeback. But there's argument over just how large a part the auto bailout played. John Kasich, especially, has pointed to the fact that Honda has made big strides in Ohio, and that that has led to more jobs, and that's not connected to the auto bailout. What's your response?

STRICKLAND: Oh, it is connected to the auto bailout, because at the depths of the auto crisis, on a weekend while I was still in the governor's office, I received a call from Honda officials, and they asked to come to see me. They came to the governor's residence on a Sunday night, and they said to me, governor, we don't normally advocate for our competitors, but we are here to ask you to use whatever influence you have with Washington to get help for the Big Three.

And why was that? They said 80 percent of our suppliers also supply the Big Three, and the suppliers operate on the thinnest of margins. And if any one of the Big Three were to go down, it could have the effect of collapsing the entire supply chain. So Governor Kasich is just simply wrong. Honda benefited. Every auto producer and automaker benefited from the auto bailout because of its effect on the supply chain.

HEADLEE: That was actually the same argument that Ford officials made to the government, as well. But let's step away from autos and just talk about pure politics, because 2010, obviously, was not a great year for Democrats, not a great year for you. Both you and three other Democrats lost statewide office. Republicans took control of the state legislature. They picked up five congressional seats. What has changed in two years that you think might make a different picture for the Democrats this time around?

STRICKLAND: Well, I think the - you know, the people of Ohio have seen the results of radical, extreme Republican leadership. And one of the first things that Governor Kasich did was to declare war on organized labor and on working people, and they passed - the Republican legislature passed Senate Bill 5. We collected about 1.3 million signatures, put that issue on the ballot and overturned Senate Bill 5 with a huge margin.

And so there were a lot of police officers and teachers and firefighters and other working people in 2010 that wanted change, and they thought perhaps if they voted for the Republicans, they would get the kind of change they wanted.

I think it's a different situation now. If I can just give you an example, the Fraternal Order of Police - many members of the Fraternal Order of Police historically have voted for the Republicans. They endorsed Senator Sherrod Brown in the Senate race this year by a vote of over 300 and some to, I think, seven. And that's just one example of how a lot of people have had their eyes open in Ohio, and I think across the country, as they have seen and witnessed the behavior of some of these Republican legislative bodies and the Republicans leading the House in Washington.

They've seen obstructionists. They've seen naysayers, and they've seen people who have been unwilling to cooperate in any way to get the economy back on track. And so, in Ohio, it's a different atmosphere now than it was in 2010, and I think that's being reflected in nearly every poll that I've seen over the last three or four months. President Obama has held a small, but a very consistent lead over Mitt Romney.

HEADLEE: And yet - and yet, Governor Strickland, the recent poll from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Ohio Newspaper Association shows Governor Kasich with an approval rating above 50 percent.

STRICKLAND: Well, I think both the president and Governor Kasich are getting some credit for the improved economy and...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

STRICKLAND: ...that's, you know, just to be understood, I think.

HEADLEE: Yeah. I imagine it's predictable. Ted Strickland, former governor of Ohio, kind enough to join us from member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks so much.

STRICKLAND: Thank you so much.

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