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Ohio: Will It Be Sulzer or Space vs. Rep. Ney?

An interesting poll came across The Fix's desk this morning that made me think twice about the conventional wisdom regarding the Democratic nominee in Ohio's 18th District.

Political insiders have long told us that Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer is the favorite to win the May 2 primary and challenge embattled Rep. Bob Ney (R) in the fall. But according to a survey done by Democratic pollster Alan Secrest for hotel developer Zack Space's campaign, Space leads the four-way field with 22 percent of the vote compared to 12 percent for perennial candidate Ralph Applegate, 11 percent for Sulzer and eight percent for former Zanesville school board member Jennifer Stewart.

Much of Space's current edge is due to a name identification margin; 33 percent of the Secrest sample recognized Space's name compared to just 19 percent who knew Sulzer's name. Why? At least some of Space's name recognition has to do with his wife, Mary, who has served as a municipal court judge in Tuscarawas County for the past 15 years; she was reelected to a six-year term in 2005 with 64 percent of the vote. Tuscarawas is also the most reliably Democratic county in the 18th district.

"Joe Sulzer has represented only a very small portion of OH 18's Democratic primary electorate, and is far less well-known is his 'base' than Zach Space is in his," Secrest writes in the polling memo. "It will be very costly for Sulzer to try to purchase name recognition in Space's home region (Cleveland media market)."

Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Sulzer, didn't dispute the head-to-head results in Secrest's poll but pointed out that nearly half of the Democratic electorate (47 percent) in the poll were undecided on a candidate. "This election is going to be decided in the last three weeks," said Leopold. "Once voters start really tuning in they are going to hear Joe Sulzer's message loud and clear."

At the end of 2005, Sulzer had a distinct financial edge over Space thanks in large part to a $100,000 loan he made to his campaign. Sulzer ended last year with $222,000 in the bank compared with just $69,000 for Space. Reports covering contributions and expenditures through March 31 are due at the Federal Election Commission by April 15.

National Democratic observers say either Space or Sulzer could win the primary and are quick to point out that that they approached Space about a potential candidacy last year but were told he would not even consider the race until his wife won reelection -- a decision that led them to push for Sulzer.

The identity of the Democratic nominee may make little difference given Ney's problem in relation to the pay-to-play lobbying scandal that has Jack Abramoff at its center. Private Republican polling conducted earlier this year showed the six-term congressman trailing both Space and Sulzer in head-to-head match-ups.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 10, 2006; 3:42 PM ET
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