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President Obama hits the campaign trail Thursday with a bus tour in Ohio. The state is a crucial battleground not only for the presidential election, but also because it could decide whether Democrats keep control of the Senate.
Up for re-election there is Democrat Sherrod Brown, who is being challenged by the state's Republican treasurer, Josh Mandel. Mandel is highlighting Brown's staunch support of the new health care law — with a big assist from outside groups.
On Cleveland's West Side this week, Brown faced a gaggle of reporters and onlookers in a corridor lined with fruit and vegetable stalls.
"Thank you all for joining us in one of America's and Ohio's and Cleveland's greatest institutions," he said, "the West Side Market."
Brown came to the 100-year-old market on official business, touting a federal grant that helps vendors accept food stamps. But later in an interview, the talk quickly turned to his campaign and to Mandel, whose name Brown never mentioned.
"The difference between me and my opponent, by and large, is that I wake up every day trying to figure out how to create jobs," he said. "My opponent wakes up every day and figures out what office to run for next, and that really is the contrast. I'm doing my job every day. That's why it's no surprise when you pick a day to come out here that I'm doing my work, not campaigning."
Support For An Unpopular Law
Brown is one of 60 senators who voted for the new health care law, and he's pleased most of it was upheld by the Supreme Court. But when asked whether he'll now campaign on that widely unpopular law, Brown demurred.
"My view is there are so many good things in it, I supported it and will continue to," he said, "but it's important that the politics stop here, that instead of people trying to get political benefit from this, that we move on and focus on what we ought to be doing and that's job creation."
Some shoppers said they'd like Brown to talk more about the health care law.
"He voted for it," Nancy Wassen, a Democrat from Ashland, said. "I think he kind of has to at least include that in what he talks about."
Others, though, advised caution.
"Right now, there are a lot of people that are against Obamacare, so I'm not sure that that's the wisest decision to make," said Laura Dorrie, a retired teacher who described herself as an undecided independent.
A Fast-Rising Star
There was a big turnout Wednesday at the Fourth of July parade in the working-class Cleveland suburb of Parma, which President Obama plans to visit Thursday. He'll get there on the heels of Mandel.
Mandel is 34 years old, but could easily be mistaken for a teenager. This former Marine intelligence officer did two tours in Iraq; he's a fast-rising star in the Republican Party and a Tea Party favorite.
In an interview, Mandel said three things are on his mind when he gets up in the morning: "Being a good husband, being a good state treasurer, and going to Washington to change our country."
To do that, Mandel said, he'll keep reminding voters of Brown's vote for the health care law.
"Sherrod Brown held in his hands the power to stop this government-run health care act," he said, "but instead of stopping it, he cast the deciding vote on the federal government's takeover of health care."
The independent fact-checking group Politifact has labeled that deciding vote charge false. It's not the only questionable claim Mandel's been making. He also said he's the underdog when it comes to campaign spending.
"At the end of the day, you know, Sherrod Brown's going to have a lot more money than we're gonna have," he said, "but this race ain't about money."
Not About Money?
Records provided by the Brown campaign show outside groups backing Mandel have spent nearly five times more than groups backing Brown.
"You have certainly more money being spent by the Republicans," said Ken Goldstein of Kantar Media Group, which tracks TV ad spending in the Ohio Senate race. "And most of that is due to the group spending that is being done on Josh Mandel's part."
Nearly $10 million worth of TV ads paid for by outside groups and favoring Mandel have already aired in Ohio, including one from Crossroads GPS that says it's no surprise Brown voted for Obamacare, "he supports Obama's agenda 95 percent of the time."
Groups such as Crossroads GPS don't have to disclose their donors. Brown said he suspects the money's coming from business groups opposed to his union-friendly voting record.
"I mean, I know who doesn't like me from outside the state, but I think this money is really all about this," he said, "without that outside money for my opponent, this wouldn't be much of a race."
Recent polls show Brown ahead of Mandel by single digits — a gap that's narrowing as outside money continues to pour in.