Article excerpt

Byline: R. M. Schneiderman and Andrew Romano; Newsweek

Forget Wisconsin's meltdown. How Ohio's budget ba ttle could decide who wins the White House in 2012.

There's a chill in the air as Ohio Gov. John Kasich ambles down the steps of a white propeller plane and dips his athletic frame into the black car waiting on the tarmac of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. Originally, the cab was supposed to convey the former Republican congressman and Lehman Brothers managing director to a posh Italian eatery a few miles away in Howland, where he would regale the local chamber of commerce with details about his plan to bring jobs back to the Buckeye State. But at the last minute, Kasich's people relocated the luncheon to the airport itself.

The official explanation for the change was convenience. But the real reason has been clear to Ohio's chattering classes for days. At the start of the week, thousands of protesters descended on the statehouse to protest Kasich's support for a bill that would severely restrict collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions, rendering them irrelevant. (The unions had already made concessions on pay and benefits to help fill the previous budget gap.) The scene was familiar to anyone who'd been paying attention to the kerfuffle in Madison, Wis., where another recently minted Republican governor, Scott Walker, had started a national shouting match over collective-bargaining rights the week before: men in flag bandannas and flannel shirts; women waving signs that said WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN on one side and IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THANK YOUR TEACHER on the other. The protesters' main gripe was familiar as well: that conservatives were using a fiscal crisis caused by greedy Wall Street bankers and disconnected Washington deregulators--not rank-and-file government workers--to pass new restrictions that would do more to cripple a key Democratic constituency than to reduce the state's daunting $8 billion deficit. So when the union members in Youngstown heard that Kasich was coming north, they quickly hatched a plan to protest, and when Kasich's team heard about the protests, they quietly changed locations. The objective, as one local paper put it, was "to avoid any hang-ups that may be caused by people seeking to disrupt the event."

Unfortunately for Kasich, however, the switcheroo did little to deter the opposition. Inside the hangar, hundreds of area bigwigs are munching on chicken francaise; outside, an even greater number of union members are shouting their slogans. As Kasich starts speaking, the sounds of the protesters filter through the room, interfering with his remarks and forcing him to defuse the situation. "I understand passion and I respect it," he says. "Let's give them a round of applause." The crowd complies. It isn't long, however, before the governor is back to being his blunt--and sometimes strident--self. "We've got a budget coming on March the 15th," he declares. "And as Ronald Reagan said, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet.' "

The problem for Kasich, and for his fellow union busters, is that their opponents are now saying the same thing. When Wisconsin's Walker launched his crusade against collective bargaining in late February, the initial response among Beltway bloviators was that the GOP had struck gold. With all those wimpy Democratic legislators fleeing Madison and all those overpaid teachers whining outside the statehouse, the thinking went, Republicans couldn't help but look like the only grown-ups in town. But a funny thing happened on the way to political nirvana: one by one, Walker's fellow Republican governors began to come out against his hardline proposals. Last week Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said they would not repeal collective bargaining. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels asked Republican lawmakers to table legislation that mirrored Wisconsin's. "There [is] a better time and place to have this -- issue raised," he said. …