On one side, there's a baby-faced, decorated Marine intelligence officer and attorney who serves as Ohio's state treasurer. On the other, a noted liberal who won his first election the same year he graduated from college and who served 14 years in Congress before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
As states go, there are few as politically divided as Ohio, where labor is energized over recent wins and conservatives are ready to do battle over the sagging economy.
With that political backdrop, next year's Senate race between Republican Josh Mandel, 34, and Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, 59, is shaping up as a close contest that will likely hinge on whether President Obama can squeeze out another victory in this must-win state.
A year out, polls from Quinnipiac and Public Policy Polling show Mr. Brown, Ohio's senior senator, leading Mr. Mandel by 15 percent.
But while Mr. Mandel, a former Ohio state legislator, is running behind in the polls, he's winning the money race — outraising Mr. Brown $2.3 million to $1.5 million in the quarter that ended June 30 and $1.5 million to $1.25 million in the next.
"This is going to be a very competitive race," Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said.
"Brown did not win in 2006, a particularly good year for Democrats nationally, as much as GOP Sen. Mike DeWine lost," she said. "He is not especially well-defined and is going to have to do defend his voting record. Even if labor won last month by defeating SB 5, voters also voted against health care reform. Brown voted for it."
Mr. Brown's congressional record has been attacked recently in television ads promoted by the 60 Plus Association, which will spend about $750,000 to call the senator out on Medicare funding cuts. The spots feature singer Pat Boone, who has acted as a spokesman for the seniors group.
"Medicare will be bankrupt in nine years, but Washington politicians like Sherrod Brown are ignoring the problem, putting their own re-elections first," Mr. Boone says in the ad — which has been called dishonest by the nonprofit group, factcheck.org.
Democrats are also on the attack.
Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Justin Barasky said Mr. Mandel has not been effective in his role as state treasurer because he has been too busy traveling to raise cash for his Senate campaign. He also chides the candidate on what he calls ethical lapses in campaign finance disclosure.
"There is a pretty big difference in Sherrod Brown, who is fighting for the middle class and Josh Mandel, who is against them," he said.
But Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Maloney defended Mr. Mandel.
"Treasurer Mandel's public career has been defined ... a willingness to put the needs of Ohio taxpayers and job creators before government," he said. "Sherrod Brown on the other hand has spent nearly 37 years as a career politician pursuing a failed economic agenda defined by tax increases, job-killing regulations and unsustainable deficit spending on the backs of Ohio families. Treasurer Mandel understands that we cannot afford to continue down this path, and his fundraising prowess shows that he will have the resources to effectively draw that contrast with America's most liberal senator."
While Mr. Mandel will need to bolster his name recognition as the campaign moves on, Ms. Duffy says. "I expect this race to be in the tossup column eventually."
She adds: "Brown is likely going to have to outperform Obama, even if the president carries the state again."
A Public Policy Polling survey of likely Ohio voters released on Nov. 9 found Mr. Obama leading all Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, 50 percent to 41 percent; Herman Cain, 50 percent to 39 percent; and New Gingrich 51 percent to 38 percent.
The poll came out a day after Ohio voters repealed the state's collective bargaining law, but PPP President Dean Debnam said Democrats should not be gloating as they look ahead.
"The electorate next year won't be as friendly to Democrats as the one that showed in Ohio yesterday," Mr. Debnam said in a statement.
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