Kenneth Blackwell: Time To Call The Foot Soldiers

Kenneth Blackwell has a long history in Ohio politics. He was the Republican mayor of Cincinnati, and later Ohio's Secretary of State, and now he's a fellow at the Family Research Council. Guest host Celeste Headlee continues the discussion on Ohio politics with Kenneth Blackwell.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, if you're a football fan, you've probably been, shall we say, puzzled, at least, by one or two calls made by replacement referees this season. We're going to get the latest from one of our sports contributors in just a few moments.

But first, we'll continue our look at Ohio politics. Earlier we heard from Democrat and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. Now for a different perspective we're joined by Kenneth Blackwell. He has a long history in Ohio politics, served as the mayor of Cincinnati and the secretary of state as well. He's now a senior fellow for family empowerment at the Family Research Council, and they take a conservative position on social issues. Kenneth Blackwell joins us now.

Thank you so much for taking the time.

KENNETH BLACKWELL: It's so good to be with you.

HEADLEE: So a stab in the dark here, Kenneth Blackwell. I am assuming that the economy is the number one issue motivating Ohio voters.

BLACKWELL: It is the number one issue, but it is not the only issue, and I think that what the Romney campaign has to do is to look at our natural resources here in Ohio. We have an abundance of coal and natural gas and we have families that need lower utility rates and we have businesses that need their job creation and investment undergirded by low cost energy.

And so jobs, jobs, jobs. That's the issue here in Ohio.

HEADLEE: And I wonder if the polls are reflecting that. The latest poll from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Ohio Newspaper Organization shows President Obama leading Mitt Romney 51 percent to 46 percent, and then there was a poll from the Washington Post that shows President Obama with 52 percent as opposed to Mitt Romney's 44 percent. Does that mean that Ohioans think President Obama is stronger on the economy?

BLACKWELL: I don't think so. I look at the rolling average. I look at the models that are used by this large number of polls that are taken in Ohio, and the real issue here is that this race is within the margin of error, and so this is going to come down to a turnout race and it's going to come down to which side has the most intense and passionate feel in their base to turn them out.

It reminds me of 2004, when everybody thought that what would be decisive was the six percent undecided vote. Well, that vote went about 50-50 for Kerry and Bush. What was the difference was the turnout. That's what it's going to come down here, and that's why the economy is a driving issue, but it is not the only issue.

When I cross-cross this state, religious liberty is going to be a big issue and the president, having taken on the Catholic church, it's going to be an issue that will impact blue collar workers in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Columbus who happen to be Catholic.

HEADLEE: I'm not sure the president would characterize it as taking on the Catholic church, but...

BLACKWELL: I'm sure he wouldn't, but I think, if you look at his overall approach, this is a president in simple, straightforward terms that has tried to transform our market economy into a government-controlled economy and our family-centered society into a government-centered society.

HEADLEE: There's still a measure of concern, I'm sure, for the Romney campaign and for Mitt Romney, so if you were going to give him advice, what advice would you give him? I mean he is in danger of losing Ohio, don't you think?

BLACKWELL: Look, Ohio's competitive. I actually think that he has a challenge of connecting with everyday families and blue collar workers. He's picking up steam with coalminers in the Southeast. He is picking up steam with truckers and longshoremen. So I mean, we have to be very, very clear that this is a close race and it can go either way and whoever can turn out their base is going to win this, and you can't leave any of your foot soldiers behind.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the battle for Ohio with Kenneth Blackwell. He spent a number of years in Ohio politics, first as the mayor of Cincinnati and then the Ohio Secretary of State during the very contentious election of 2004 that you referred to earlier.

But this year, as you say, it may come down to turnout. And I wonder if it's going to be the auto industry that motivates people, at least to go to the polls, just because there's so much support for the auto industry. The New York Times estimates that one in 10 jobs in Ohio are linked to it and that makes it an issue that could work in the president's favor. What do you think?

BLACKWELL: Well, look, one of the things that you need to do when you analyze the auto industry in Ohio is to understand that Honda is the largest auto producer in the state, and it's non-union. So at the end of the day, it is the initiative that the governor has taken, John Kasich, to stabilize and make clear that taxes are not going to go up, that paperwork and regulations are going to be reduced, that we're going to be an investment-friendly state - and that is why I think we've seen a drop in the unemployment rate, not because the president spent way more money, taxpayer money, saving union jobs than he had to.

HEADLEE: That means you agree with the op-ed that Mitt Romney penned. It was titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," but in there he said basically what you're saying now, that they should have let the Big Three, or at least GM and Chrysler, go bankrupt. Is that correct?

BLACKWELL: Well, look, capitalism without failure is not capitalism. We have legal structures that would have allowed them to save those jobs through structured bankruptcy. There are a lot of companies that do that. So if the issue is saving the jobs at the lowest possible cost, then the president took the most expensive route when he could have taken a route that would have taken less of taxpayer dollars at a time when we have an enormous $16 trillion debt, when that debt is a triple-headed monster. It is a moral crisis because of the inter-generational theft that is going on. It is an economic threat because of the anemic growth that the flight of capital has taken. And it is a national security issue because China is the largest holder of our debt.

HEADLEE: What I'm seeing a demonstration of here, Kenneth Blackwell, is kind of the very difficult dance for Mitt Romney in Ohio, and tell me what you think, because you've mentioned John Kasich. You've pointed to him as doing things that helped to bring jobs back to Ohio, but the Ohio economy is improving, slowly but steadily. It is better off than some of the other states that are not seeing the kind of growth that Ohio is getting.

Many people in the Republican Party and certainly Mitt Romney's campaign would like to give Kasich the credit for that as governor, but it's hard to give credit to the governor without also giving credit to President Obama's national policies.

BLACKWELL: Well, look, at the end of the day, whether it's Florida or Wisconsin or Ohio, gubernatorial leadership has made a difference in creating that climate. Nobody's going to be able to take away from the president his desire to take claim for the turnaround, but it's just not the case, and so we're not going to sit back and not say that the small government, reduced paperwork, low cost energy initiatives of these governors, including Kasich in Ohio, haven't had the most profound impact on the economic turnarounds of those three states.

And so, look, that's why it's not going to - this is not just going to be an economic issue - campaign that's driven by economic issues. It's going to be the size of government. It's going to be the intrusiveness of government in our lives. And I think when Mitt Romney makes the case that he wants to go to constitutional governance, smaller government that optimizes individual liberty, he in fact speaks a winning message.

HEADLEE: All right. So you say it's not going to be just the economy, and in 2004, when George W. Bush took Ohio, it turned out to be same-sex marriage that played a pretty surprising role - in turnout, at least, that brought a lot of people to the polls to vote for President Bush. So is there an issue other than the economy that's kind of flying underneath the radar right now that could make the difference in Ohio?

BLACKWELL: Well, I think, one, the president is already feeling the heat. National security is going to be an issue. People want not only to be safe in their homes, they want to feel that we are safe in the world. And this...

HEADLEE: And you think...

BLACKWELL: This is a president that is confused as to who our allies are in the Middle East. This is a president who tries to thump his chest with the death of bin Laden, but at the end of the day, we are in a much more precarious situation in that part of the world than we've been in a very, very long time.

HEADLEE: Why do you say that?

BLACKWELL: Well, one, just things that have come up. We are not well-liked in the Middle East with a president that has surrendered our national pride to our adversaries in the Middle East. People exploit weakness, and it's starting to manifest itself in attacks on our embassies, the death of our statesmen, and a president that is not perceived as being that strong.

HEADLEE: Kenneth Blackwell, senior fellow for family empowerment at the Family Research Council, also formerly served as Ohio's Secretary of State and the mayor of Cincinnati. He joined us from member station WVXU in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mr. Blackwell, thank you so much.

BLACKWELL: It's always good to be with you.

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