CHILLICOTHE, Ohio (AP) — Josh Mandel drew murmurs of approval from a dozen or so Republicans as he delivered a quick rundown on the budget and energy, and plenty of laughs as the U.S. Senate candidate joked about his boyish appearance.
"I look 19 years old," the 35-year-old Mandel said. "Twenty," yelled one woman at the small gathering on East Main Street in the heart of southern Ohio's Ross County. Adding to the levity, Mandel riffed on what year he'll be shaving.
For all the good-natured ribbing, this is serious business for Republicans, underscored by a sign on the wall at the GOP storefront — "We need your help taking back America" — as well as the placards along a winding stretch of U.S. 23 south of Chillicothe that urge Ohioans to "Vote Josh Mandel, Change Washington."
Mandel barely had moved into the state treasurer's office after his November 2010 win before he was running against first-term Sen. Sherrod Brown, a populist Democrat facing strong Republican headwinds statewide. With Ohio the ultimate battleground prize in the presidential election, the fate of the Senate candidates is linked closely to President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney. Four weeks out, polls show Obama and Brown with an edge.
Early on in this election, Republicans had a wealth of possibilities for gaining majority control of the Senate since Democrats were defending 23 seats — with several vulnerable incumbents — to the GOP's 10. The Republican options have narrowed considerably with the implosion of Republican Todd Akin in a Missouri race against Sen. Claire McCaskill, the retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe in Maine and surprisingly competitive races in Indiana and Arizona.
Republicans counter that Democratic-leaning Connecticut could elect Republican Linda McMahon, giving them another option for gaining Senate control. Republicans need a net gain of four seats to take charge, three if Romney wins the presidency. Paul Ryan as vice president would break any tie votes.
Mandel is the GOP hope in Ohio after the Republican wave of 2010 elected John Kasich governor, sent Rob Portman to the Senate and churned out multiple wins in the U.S. House and state legislature. The onetime city councilman, state legislator and Marine who did two tours in Iraq is intent on continuing the trend against the 59-year-old Brown.
"He seems like a nice kid," said Mary Jane Hatmaker, 81, of Chillicothe after hearing Mandel's presentation.
Democrats scoff and say the kid can't handle the truth and hasn't done his homework, reflected in a lack of specifics and substance.
"Josh Mandel should be ashamed of himself for ... ignoring his job as treasurer so he could run a campaign that's ranged from dishonest and embarrassing to downright dirty," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Brown campaign.
In Ohio, the economy is on the upswing, with the 2009 federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors crucial in a state where 850,000 are working due to the auto industry. Unemployment in August in the state was 7.2 percent, below the national average that month of 8.1 percent.
Three years after the bailout, Mandel declines to offer an opinion.
"I have not come out in support or opposition to the bailout," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. Pressed, he said twice, "It depends on who you talk to."
But he eagerly blames Brown and the bailout for causing the loss of pensions for nonunion employees at Delphi Corp., a former General Motors subsidiary.
"Talk to Delphi employees, tens of thousands who were stripped of their pensions because of a process that Sherrod Brown supported," Mandel says.
In an editorial board meeting with The Columbus Dispatch in August, Mandel called Brown "un-American" for backing the bailout. In fact, Ohio's Republican senator at the time, George Voinovich, also backed the bailout.
Brown boasted of his support for the bailout in a July ad titled "Both from Ohio," in which he appears with a Chevy Cruze. He looks under the hood at engine blocks built in Defiance and a transmission made in Toledo before driving off.
"I'm proud to have led the fight for the auto rescue package," Brown says.
Mandel uses his presentation to the Ross County group, many of them seniors, to promise to protect Social Security and Medicare. In a follow-up, he declined to back GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system for those 55 and younger.
"When I go to Washington, I will work in a bipartisan way to save Social Security and Medicare. Thus far I have not endorsed anyone's specific plan," Mandel said in an interview.
Mandel does express strong support for legislation by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Libya, and skewers Brown for voting against the legislation late last month. He seems unaware that Senate Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the legislation in part because it jeopardized assistance to the United States' strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel. The vote was 81-10.
The measure "is broadly drafted so it would potentially affect aid to any American ally (including Israel) should terrorists decide to attack, trespass or breach U.S. diplomatic facilities there," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee wrote in a Sept. 21 letter to all senators urging them to oppose the legislation. "Furthermore, at this time of turmoil and uncertainty in the Middle East, the United States government needs to be able to use all available tools to influence events in the region."
During Senate debate on the measure, a top Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, vigorously spoke out against the bill, warning of its damaging effects.
Asked about the legislation, Mandel said he backs it. Questioned about the impact on Israel, he said, "I think we need to support the U.S.-Israel relationship, but I think support for Israel should be separated from support to countries like Pakistan and Egypt."
Mandel said when he entered the race he was the "sacrificial lamb," but it's Brown who has been quartered and roasted by some $19 million in negative ads from Republican-leaning groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads and its sister advocacy nonprofit group, Crossroads GPS.
The onslaught began in August 2011 and has continued unabated, the most spent against an incumbent in any Senate race this cycle since a landmark Supreme Court ruling opened the door to corporations and unions to spend money on elections. Labor and environmental groups have responded with ads criticizing Mandel, while the candidates have aired their own spots.
After all the charges and countercharges, Mandel and Brown will face each other in three debates within a 10-day span — Oct. 15 in Cleveland, Oct. 18 in Columbus and Oct. 25 in Cincinnati. Early voting is already under way in Ohio.