Columbus, Ohio — With the outcome of the Democratic race appearing more or less settled, many Ohio Democrats are going to have their eyes on things other than the finish line during the state's primary Tuesday. Political observers here say that Ohio is a reliable bellwether for national political trends. In every election beginning in 1964, they say, Ohio voters have reflected national presidential preferences to within one percentage point. Thus, Democratic leaders will watch to see how their party's image is faring here.
``We are a microcosm of the country,'' says James Ruvolo, Ohio's Democratic chairman. ``If you look at our percentage of ethnic makeup and race makeup, we mirror the country - so it's a real testing ground for the November election.''
The problem for Ohio Democrats is a front-runner, Gov. Michael Dukakis, whom some describe as weak. Without some new-found enthusiasm for the presumptive nominee, party activists are worried about the election.
``To date it's hardly been exciting,'' Paul Tipps, former state party chairman, says about the Democratic race. ``If Jesse Jackson weren't in, it would have been a total ho-hum. I mean, nobody turns anybody on.''
Mr. Tipps is so pessimistic about Governor Dukakis's chances in Ohio that the question of whether he can beat George Bush in November depends on ``who is on the ticket with him.'' Tipps and other Democrats here, including Gov. Richard Celeste, are pushing for Ohio Sen. John Glenn to get the vice-presidential nomination.
Much of the Democratic electorate here is conservative, or at least very independent, and party leaders are as eager to learn what the exit polls will say about general voter attitudes as to see who wins the primary.
``The swing vote is growing in each election, so we have to capture those independent voters,'' Governor Celeste says.
Mr. Ruvolo outlines what he feels are the essential steps to a Democratic victory in Ohio for the fall:
The energizing of the Rev. Mr. Jackson's black core constituency, so that they will vote in large numbers in November.
A lot more recognition for Mr. Dukakis, who is not well known here.
A clearer campaign message, focusing on the economy, ``because that's the No. 1 issue in Ohio.''
A perception that both the Dukakis and Jackson campaigns have been treated fairly, so that it will be ``easier to unite Ohio Democrats no matter who they are supporting in the primaries.''
Jackson will do well in certain areas of the state, according to local observers, but is not expected to pull off any surprises. His campaign manager, Gerald Austin, ran two successful campaigns for Celeste.
Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University, does think Jackson can tap into an ``economic protest'' vote in the state. ``There are still counties in Ohio with unemployment rates well into double digits. There are whole industries that will never come back,'' he says.
Labor is a key player in the primary for both primary campaigns and for the Democratic party in the fall.
``The traditional blue-collar parts of the state will be somewhat of a battle,'' says Kathi Rogers, Dukakis's state coordinator. ``It's going to be a place to watch to see if we are able to pull [blue-collar] folks over. A lot of them went with Reagan in 1984.''
``We are definitely in good shape with [labor] leadership,'' Ruvolo says. ``The question remains how good shape are we in with the rank and file. If we are just criticizing Bush and Reagan, we're not going to do very well. If we are criticizing Reagan's policies and saying what we are going to do different, and we present a strong economic message ... we are going to win this thing.''
One of the critical factors Ruvolo and other party activists will be watching closely will be voter turnout. Historically, according to Ruvolo, a low turnout means trouble for the Democrats. ``If the turnout is decent, that will tell us there is some enthusiasm - and that's crucial in Ohio,'' he says.