In boxing, it is the fight at the top of the card that gets the big headlines and draws the crowds to the arena.
In Ohio – a key battleground state in this year’s presidential election – that fight would be a heavyweight championship bout between the reigning champ, Barack Obama, and the challenger, Mitt Romney. And, if the polls are to be believed, that will be a close one, a 15-rounder decided on points rather than a knock-out blow.
But sometimes it is a fight on the “undercard” – between lesser names going toe-to-toe – that turns out to be just as good or better than the top-of-the-card battle.
And, in Ohio, that would be Democratic incumbent senator Sherrod Brown defending his title against a young challenger, Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel.
It’s hard to imagine a fight tougher than the one Obama and Romney will wage here over the next 15 weeks, but Brown-Mandel will come close.
It is, after all, a key part of the battle for control of the US Senate, where the Democrats now hold a razor-thin one vote advantage.
Every Senate race counts, and particularly a race in a state like Ohio, which has the reputation of swinging back and forth between Democratic and Republican like the pendulum on a grandfather clock.
It is just jaw-dropping, simply stunning, to consider the amount of money that is going to be spent in this race.
Six years ago, when Brown up-ended incumbent Republican Mike DeWine to win the Senate race, $23 million was spent between the two candidates.
As of June 30, these two candidates have raised more than $25 million - $15.3 million by Brown, $9.9 million by Mandel.
And that is just part of the story.
In the six years since the DeWine-Brown battle, we have seen the rise of Super PACs, the independent committees that raise and spend millions on races, with little or no reporting of where the money is coming from.
Over $10.5 million has been spent so far by Super PACs and independent committees on broadcast ads attacking Brown – and they have been spending it for more than a year.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS – a Super PAC controlled by Republican strategist Karl Rove – have been the big players in the anti-Brown ads, but they have had plenty of help from other groups like the 60 Plus Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Less has been spent by groups promoting Brown and attacking Mandel – about $2.5 million as of the end of June - but that number is growing. Majority PAC, a Super PAC dedicated to electing Democratic senators, is on the air now in Ohio with an ad attacking Mandel. The League of Conservation owners has weighed in with pro-Brown ads; and the Service Employees International Union has also gotten into the act.
The themes of the two campaigns can be seen most clearly in the Super PAC and independent expenditure ads.
A recent Crossroads GPS ad slamming Brown had a game show theme, with flashing lights and a Don Pardo-style announcer asking the question, “Who’s the biggest supporter of President Obama in Ohio?”
The answer, the ad said, is Brown, adding that he has voted with the Obama administration 95 percent of the time.
Tim Burke, the Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman, thinks Brown’s opponents are barking up the wrong tree by emphasizing Brown’s ties to Obama.
Burke believes Obama is going to win Ohio, although he concedes it will likely be a close race.
“This kind of ad only works if President Obama was going to lose Ohio by 2-1; and that’s just not going to happen," Burke said.
The TV ad running on Ohio stations now from Majority PAC calls Mandel an “absentee treasurer," pointing out that he missed 14 straight meetings of a board that makes decisions on how Ohio’s money is invested – one of the chief duties of a state treasurer.
George Brunemann, president of the Cincinnati Tea Party, believes such attacks will be ignored.
“The fact is, he’s done a pretty good job in the two years he has been treasurer,’’ Brunemann said. “He’s actually made some money for the state. And that’s not easy in this climate.”
Tea Party activists in Ohio, Brunemann said, are generally more enthusiastic about Mandel’s candidacy than they are about the man at the top of the ticket, Mitt Romney.
Romney, because of the health care reform with individual mandates that he created when he was governor of Massachusetts, “takes health care off the table. How can he go after Obama on Obamacare?," Brunemann said.
What the tea party activists like about Mandel, Brunemann said, “is his attitude toward the establishament Republicans. He seems like the type who will go to Washington and when the Republican leaders tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘we need your vote on this,’ he’ll have the guts to stand up to them if he thinks they are wrong.”
Tea party activists in Ohio have shown their muscle before – witness the GOP sweep here for 2010 – but the fact is, Brown still leads in the polls – by seven percentage points, according to a late June poll from Public Policy Polling.
But that same poll showed Brown’s approval rating slipping significantly; and that is probably the result of over a year of hammering he has taken from the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS.
In the end, this race may be decided by which side has the allies with the most money to spend to tear down the other guy; and which side makes the most plausible argument with its 30-second TV spots.