CLEVELAND — AT a private fund-raiser high above the streets of Cleveland, Lt. Gov. Mike DeWine makes his pitch.
``I'm in a unique position,'' he tells the well-turned-out crowd. ``I'm running for the US Senate. I'm a Republican and I'm ahead. We haven't been ahead in a [Senate] race since 1970.''
Indeed, Democratic Sens. John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum have dominated Ohio's two Senate seats for two decades. Now, with Senator Metzenbaum retiring, Republicans are jubilant. Not only could they recapture one seat in Ohio, but a win here also puts them a step closer to winning a majority in the Senate.
``Four months ago, [GOP leaders] were talking about effective control of the Senate,'' Mr. DeWine says. ``Now, they're talking about control of the Senate.''
For Ohio, the race here between DeWine and legal entrepreneur Joel Hyatt means an important change in its Washington delegation. While Metzenbaum carved out one of the most liberal stances in the Senate, DeWine and Mr. Hyatt are running more traditional centrist campaigns. While the incumbent played a high-profile populism, his would-be successors are emphasizing bread-and-butter issues.
``Howard Metzenbaum as the crusading populist doesn't fit Mr. Hyatt or Mr. DeWine,'' says Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University. ``I think there'll be a stylistic difference. There'll be a policy difference no matter whether Mr. Hyatt or Mr. DeWine is elected.''
DEWINE, the Republican, is pushing welfare reform and better approaches to crime-fighting. As lieutenant governor, he is in charge of Ohio's law-enforcement agencies. The post has made DeWine highly recognized among voters.
Hyatt, meanwhile, is talking about welfare reform and the danger of underfunded pensions.
``People are very concerned about this issue and no one is focusing on it,'' he says in an interview. Not only do underfunded pensions affect workers, they affect taxpayers because the US government guarantees those pensions. ``We have got to get ahead of these problems and not [simply] react to them.''
These middle-of-the-road issues mark a sharp contrast with Metzenbaum. In his three terms, the senator reveled in taking populist stands against what he viewed as special interests. He blocked the 1986 sale of Conrail to Norfolk Southern; he held up the appointment of Ed Meese as President Reagan's attorney general.
``Metzenbaum throughout his career has done a very good job of making his populism have a very middle-class tone to it,'' Mr. Asher says.
``When you do the public-opinion polls, you find that the majority of people don't like him. But when he runs, he wins elections,'' he adds.
It is perhaps this double-edged quality of Metzenbaum's legacy that makes both candidates skittish about bringing him up.
Hyatt, Metzenbaum's son-in-law, calls Metzenbaum ``a grand old guy.'' But he steers clear of embracing the legacy. ``We are very different people precisely because we are different generations,'' he says. ``I am coming into public life at a very different time than he did.''
Adds DeWine: ``I don't generally talk about Metzenbaum. My job is to talk about what I want to.''
So far, according to recent polls, DeWine holds a comfortable double-digit lead over Hyatt. The latter shows little concern this early in the race. ``I'm comfortable being the underdog,'' he says. ``I like that role.''
Despite his late entry into politics, Hyatt has high recognition among voters. They remember his numerous ads for Hyatt Legal Services, in which he appeared, giving viewers a personal guarantee of satisfaction. The problem, analysts say, is that Hyatt may be identified too closely with the legal profession to define himself as a political candidate. The candidate portrays himself as an innovator whose practices were disliked by most lawyers.
``There's no one in America who has had to fight establishment lawyers more than I have,'' he says.
Hyatt says the campaign has no plans to play off his well-known ad where he gave his word. Instead, he is searching for the right message to keep Ohio's Senate seat in Democratic hands.