Fifteen years ago, Republican George W. Bush cemented Westerville's reputation as a solid GOP area by rolling up a 23-point margin on his way to a narrow Ohio win that propelled him to a second term as president.

Democrat Barack Obama lost in Westerville by almost double digits in the following two elections. But by 2016, the suburb northeast of Columbus had gone from deep red to light blue, preferring Democrat Hillary Clinton by 4 points, even though Donald Trump took the Buckeye State by 8.

The changing political character of Westerville and suburbs across the nation make it the perfect locale for the fourth Democratic presidential debate, the party's Ohio chairman, David Pepper, said Sept. 13 after the Democratic National Committee announced the city will play host to that debate.

The debate, at Otterbein University's Rike Center, presumably will be a two-night event, Oct. 15 and 16, since 11 candidates already are qualified.

In Ohio, "a seismic shift in voting patterns in previously Republican suburbs has fundamentally changed the math, and map, of the state," Pepper said. And Westerville "is ground zero in that shift," he said in a report prepared for the national news media.

"Suburban voters, particularly women, are backing Democratic candidates in response to the broken promises and toxic agenda of Donald Trump," Pepper said in a release. "In 2018, Ohio House Democrats flipped six seats from red to blue, and those pickups came in suburban communities like Westerville. Sen. Sherrod Brown's 7-point victory was powered not just by traditional Democratic voters, but by historic gains in our suburbs."

But Ohio GOP press secretary Elizabeth Giannone sees it differently.

It doesn't really matter to Republicans where the Democrats debate, she said, because "Ohioans have made it clear that their radical ideas are not welcome here."

"President Trump's pro-growth policies have created a booming economy, and in 2016 we flipped traditionally blue counties red. President Trump won Ohio by 8 points, and we are still feeling that momentum thanks to the president's leadership. The Democrats' radical agendas, policies that will only result in higher taxes on the middle class, simply don't resonate here."

The Westerville matchup will be moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and Marc Lacey of The New York Times. The format has not been determined.

An Ohio debate is likely to produce conversations about mass shootings, since the one in Dayton last month took place just 85 miles west of Otterbein.

Pepper said one reason Democrats are gaining power in suburbs stems from women "working to prevent gun violence."

Another logical topic for a political gathering in Ohio is the economy, where job creation has lagged and GM pulled its manufacturing facility out of Lordstown earlier this year.

"I would expect both Lordstown and the Dayton tragedy to be important parts of the discussion," Pepper said. "We will also encourage the presidential candidates, while they're here in Ohio that week, to take the time to visit these and other communities of our great state, and hear from voters about priority issues, from jobs to gun safety to health care."

The Rike Center, a domed building that's home to several of the university's athletic teams, holds 3,100 for athletic events.

Otterbein is looking forward to showing off its campus and the community it calls home, said President John Comerford.

"It's a huge opportunity to spread the word about what a special place Otterbein is," Comerford said.

It also signals Ohio's importance in the presidential election.

"There is no doubt that this is an indication that the (DNC) believes Ohio is still an important swing state in the presidential election, and they want to make sure their candidates are getting a lot of exposure here," Comerford said.

The school isn't sure yet how many seats for students will be available, since CNN will completely transform the Rike Center.

Next door, the Clements Recreation Center will be dedicated to news coverage, with about 1,000 reporters expected, Comerford said.

While Otterbein has never hosted a debate, it has seen visits by such Republican presidential hopefuls as Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008 and Bob Dole in 1996. The campus played host to the final State of the State address of Genoa Township resident Gov. John Kasich in 2018. The CNN senior analyst also often appears on air from a studio at Otterbein. Previous Democratic debates this year were held in Houston, Miami and Detroit.

The 10 who debated Sept. 12 in Texas automatically qualify, since the criteria for the Ohio get-together remain the same. In addition, impeachment advocate Tom Steyer also has qualified, bringing the field to 11.

The number could be lower if any who took part in the Texas debate drop out -- which is not expected -- or higher if others meet polling and fund-raising requirements.

Already qualified for the Ohio event: former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and businessman Andrew Yang.

The Ohio Democratic Party will have a limited allotment of tickets available.

A sign-up for a chance to receive tickets is available at go.ohiodems.org/debate

The city of Westerville issued a statement Sept. 13 saying the city and university would work together closely over the next four weeks to manage this event.

"It's an honor to be tapped for such a prominent event in our nation's political process," said City Manager David Collinsworth. "We look forward to the global visibility it will bring our community."

The Columbus Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smola contributed to this story.

drowland@dispatch.com

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