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Ohio is pivotal to Democratic hopes to reclaim the Senate

JACKSON, Ohio—Rachel Joseph is the kind of loyal Republican whose vote made Ohio a dependable GOP machine, one that twice helped send George Bush to the White House and year after year sent fellow Republicans to Congress.

That's no longer certain.

Like many of her factory coworkers in this small southern Ohio town, Joseph doesn't follow politics closely, but she's mad at the loss of manufacturing jobs, high gasoline prices and scandals in the statehouse. She knows Republicans have been in charge. And she's thinking of voting for a Democrat.

"I voted for Bush, but now I wish I hadn't," said Joseph, a press operator and one of more than 300 workers locked out by an auto-parts manufacturer that they say is squeezing them to boost profits.

"Things went bad. There aren't enough jobs for us. And gas, what's the deal with these prices? This is a pretty Republican area. But I don't think any Republican is going to win here this time."

That's why Sen. Mike DeWine is considered one of the five most endangered Republicans in the Senate. His race is pivotal to deciding which party wins control of the Senate in November. Democrats need to gain six seats, net, to take control.

DeWine, 59, faces Rep. Sherrod Brown, 53, a Democrat from suburban Cleveland, in what will be one of the country's most closely watched contests. While one poll last week showed DeWine leading by 11 percentage points, it put DeWine's "favorable" rating at only 41 percent. With Brown's name recognition low downstate but sure to rise by fall as advertising and media coverage expand, DeWine concedes that he faces a fight for political survival.

"This is going to be a very hotly contested race," DeWine said in an interview after breezing to a primary victory Tuesday. "But I'm going to work very hard. ...We're going to be OK."

First elected to office (county prosecutor) in the Democratic year of 1976 and first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 elections that punished Republicans, DeWine is no stranger to running in a tough environment.

But this year in Ohio might be unlike any he's seen.

The muscle of the state's economy, manufacturing jobs, continues to atrophy. Ohio lost one in five factory jobs in the last 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Young people are leaving in search of opportunities elsewhere.

And wherever they look, Ohioans see Republicans in trouble:

_President Bush is as unpopular in Ohio as he is elsewhere, even though the state put him over the top in his 2004 re-election.

_Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest to charges of failing to report thousands of dollars in gifts. His approval rating is below 10 percent. A term limit will end his statehouse career this year, sparing angry voters the task.

_A Taft friend was charged with stealing at least $1 million from an investment he managed for the state Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

_Rep. Bob Ney, whose district includes Jackson, has been implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in Washington.

"Bush couldn't carry the state today," Brown said in an interview. "He's a factor and Bob Taft's a factor. They reinforce each other. The corruption in Washington mirrors the corruption in Columbus."

What about the man he's running against?

"Mike's part of it," Brown said. "Mike was with Bush on every major issue, the Iraq war, the energy bill, the Medicare bill, Social Security privatization."

DeWine voted with Bush 96 percent of the time during Bush's first term and 76 percent of the time in 2005, according to Congressional Quarterly, an authoritative news-research service. Brown said DeWine's 2005 decline in support for Bush was part of what he called "an election year conversion" to appear more independent.

Regardless of why, DeWine has broken with Bush and GOP leaders on some big issues—and angered Ohio conservatives in the process.

He opposed a 2004 state initiative banning gay marriage, though he'll vote next month for a federal constitutional amendment to ban it. He also was part of the Senate's so-called "Gang of 14" that broke a parliamentary logjam to get several Bush nominees confirmed for the federal courts—but preserved Democrats' right to filibuster.

"We were upset with him," said Phil Buress, the president of a conservative group called Citizens for Community Values. But he added that DeWine's support for the federal marriage amendment helped redeem him. "We're going to come out swinging for Mike."

While Buress acknowledged that Ohio voters are in a bad mood, he said they wouldn't punish DeWine. "Mike isn't going to be held responsible for what the Republicans did in Ohio."

DeWine has worked to distance himself from other Ohio Republicans; his first ad, for example, stressed the word "independent."

"We will win because they will focus on our race, they'll make a decision on Mike DeWine versus Sherrod Brown," he said. "They won't let what's going on with other peripheral issues affect them. I don't think it's about Bob Taft. I don't think it's about anybody else besides the two of us."

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ON THE WEB

For more on the DeWine campaign, www.mikedewine.com.

For more on the Brown campaign, www.sherrodbrown.com.

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(The poll of 625 frequent voters, taken April 24-26, had an error margin of 4 percentage points. It was performed by Mason-Dixon for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Mike DeWine

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Ohio profile

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