Thursday, April 6, 2006

Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, who has angered parts of his conservative Republican base and trails in most polls, wants the support of the nation’s leading tax-cut lobby, but he has not decided whether he will sign a pledge to get it.

Billed by election trackers as one of the Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbents, whose prospects are rated a “toss up” in a political environment that Mr. DeWine says is “very competitive,” the lawmaker recently called Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), to ask for his group’s support.

Mr. Norquist said he told the senator that he was one of nine Senate Republicans who had not signed ATR’s pledge never to vote for a tax increase, suggesting that if he did, “that would be a very helpful sign” and could lead to ATR’s support.

Mr. DeWine replied that he had never voted for a tax increase and “didn’t think he’d have a problem signing” the pledge, according to an interview with Mr. Norquist. The senator then reportedly asked the tax-cut activist to send the pledge to him, “and I’ll take a look at it.”

In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. DeWine said that a week after his conversation with Mr. Norquist, he still hadn’t made a decision on the pledge.

“We’re looking at it. I haven’t looked at the language yet,” he said.

The latest effort to secure the support of an influential grass-roots conservative organization illustrated Mr. DeWine’s problems of late in his bid for a third term in the fall against liberal Democratic challenger Rep. Sherrod Brown: how to counter the perception that some of his votes and positions have alienated party conservatives.

One conservative group that has a big problem with Mr. DeWine is the National Rifle Association, which is giving him an “F” grade over his opposition to the NRA’s top priority last year: a bill protecting gun manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits for unlawful use of their firearms.

“He was the lone Republican to vote against a cloture vote on the bill, and the lone Republican to speak against the bill that had overwhelmingly bipartisan support. He has been a consistent and loyal supporter of the gun-control movement, and NRA members and lawful gun owners in Ohio know it,” said Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist.

Mr. DeWine refused to apologize for his vote, saying, “I call it like I see it.”

“I believe people have the right to have guns and that this was a well-intentioned bill,” the former prosecutor said. But “I felt it would exclude automatically victims from our courts without having their day in court.”

Mr. DeWine also joined the bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators who cut a deal that undercut the Democrats’ filibuster against Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees, and said, “We did take some hits from people who didn’t understand fully what the deal was.”

Republican leaders agree that the political climate in Ohio is hostile to their party as a result of state government scandals and two large tax increases that have plunged Republican Gov. Bob Taft’s ratings into the low teens. “It’s a gloomy environment, but it’s early,” said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett.

Mr. DeWine dismisses polls showing him behind Mr. Brown — though a recent Rasmussen poll of 500 likely voters shows the race in a statistical dead heat — but he says, “We all have to run in the climate that exists. You can’t do anything about that.”

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