WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, in trouble with parts of his conservative base in Ohio, went looking for some grassroots support this month over at Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
Norquist has long been the go-to guy for any candidate who wants to burnish his tax-cut credentials by signing ATR's no-new-taxes pledge, but when Norquist checked his pledge list, the two-term senator was one of nine Republicans who had not signed on the dotted line.
"[DeWine] called the other day, and he was talking about getting support from Americans for Tax Reform," Norquist told me. "I told him he is not a signer, but we could send it over to him and that would be a very helpful sign, a commitment that you are never going to vote to raise taxes. ... [He] asked us to send it over."
At press time, Norquist has not heard back from DeWine about the pledge. In an interview, the senator told me his staff was "looking at it," but added he could not "envision voting to increase taxes. I don't anticipate raising taxes."
In fact, Norquist said DeWine has "voted for some of the Bush tax cuts, but not all of them."
The senator's phone call to Norquist was illustrative of a much larger problem, as he prepares to seek a third term in what will likely be one of the roughest and most expensive Senate races in Ohio's history. DeWine has rubbed some of his conservative constituents the wrong way, beginning with his votes last year on the gun-manufacturers liability law and, earlier this year, with his role in the Gang of 14 senators who cut a deal that ended the filibuster battle over President Bush's appeals-court nominees.
DeWine has been a tepid supporter of gun-rights issues in the past, earning a C grade in 2000 from the National Rifle Association. But this year, after he opposed a bill that prohibits lawsuits against gun manufacturers for unlawful use of their firearms, the NRA is giving him an F.
"It was our No. 1 legislative priority last year, but DeWine was the lone Republican to vote against the [filibuster-breaking] cloture vote on the bill and the lone Republican to speak against the bill that had overwhelmingly bipartisan support and passed by a 2-to-1 margin," said NRA chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox.
"He has been a consistent, loyal supporter of the gun-control movement, and NRA members and lawful gun owners in Ohio know it," Cox told me.
In his defense, DeWine said, "I call it like I see it." He believes "people have a right to have guns," but the issue for him came down to whether Congress should prevent people with grievances against firearm manufacturers "from having their day in court."
On his role in the Gang of 14, which undercut the GOP plan to kill the filibuster rule on judicial nominations, he pointed out that the action cleared the way for Senate approval of more than a half dozen Bush nominees.
"We didn't think we lost anything," he said. "From a conservative point of view, we were very successful."
But while DeWine faces a tough battle for his political survival in Ohio, where the Republican state government has been tarred by scandal and Gov. Bob Taft's approval score is barely in the teens, he has a secret weapon: his Democratic opponent.
Ultra-liberal Rep. Sherrod Brown has a voting record that starts with his opposition to the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, and consistent votes to cut or freeze defense and intelligence spending. He even voted against the $87 billion supplemental funds for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and against every tax cut.
"Brown's national-security record is abysmal. He voted twice against the original Patriot Act, just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and voted twice against reauthorizing the Patriot Act," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Brown, in other words, is way out of the mainstream of his own party, and, in a closely divided state like Ohio, that is going to work in the GOP's favor. "He ranks more liberal than Rep. Dennis Kucinich," said Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett, comparing Brown to the extreme-leftist Cleveland Democrat.
Still, Bennett acknowledged the campaign will be a nail-biter: "It's going to be a $20 million race in an environment that is gloomy right now, but it's early yet."
DeWine, however, is stoic about his situation. "We all have to run in the climate that exists, and we can't do anything about the climate," he said.