COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A year of scandals in Ohio's Republican-led government and infighting among GOP candidates turned the gubernatorial primary yesterday into a test of sentiment that may foreshadow the party's prospects in November.
''The Republicans have a problem," said Carl Rullmann, a Republican who declared that he supports Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell in his race against Attorney General Jim Petro.
Two other states also held primaries yesterday, including North Carolina, where the district attorney prosecuting the Duke University rape case was on the ballot, and in Indiana, where congressional incumbents were expected to easily win their party nominations easily.
In Ohio, Blackwell, the secretary of state who served in the Reagan administration, will face Petro, who was reported to be behind in polls published Sunday.
Blackwell's prominence as a leading black voice in the GOP could be pivotal to Republicans in the party. He is the first black candidate to run for governor in Ohio.
His ads have sought to taint Petro with connections to the state's investment in rare coins that went awry and to tie him to Governor Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to four ethics violations last year involving a failure to report free golf outings and gifts.
Petro denounced Blackwell as a hypocrite who opposes abortion and gambling, even though some of his multimillion-dollar stock portfolio is invested in those interests.
The GOP disunity may have turned off some voters.
''I saw a lot of back stabbing, name-calling, character assassination. I don't go for that kind of stuff," said James Martin, 66, leaving a polling place in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville. He said the negative campaigning had influenced his choice in the Republican primary.
The Ohio scandals also emboldened Democrats who hope to end the GOP's 15-year hold on the governor's office.
The winner of the primary was likely to face Representative Ted Strickland, a Democrat, in November. Strickland is viewed as the Democrats' best chance to regain some control over a state government where Republicans control all three branches.
The GOP also has control over most statewide offices and congressional seats.
Strickland was heavily favored over a former state legislator in the Democratic primary.
Republicans targeted the House seat that Strickland leaves open as one of its best shots nationally to gain a Democratic congressional spot.
National Democrats and Republicans have spent about $1 million in the race, more than they have for any primary in the past decade.
Ohio's US Senate race will also be closely watched in the fall, but the incumbent senator, Mike DeWine, and his Democratic rival, US Representative Sherrod Brown, were expected to easily emerge from the primary.
In Indiana, nine congressional incumbents were expected to easily advance to November, with most challengers short on money and party support.
Senator Richard G. Lugar, one of the most popular politicians in the state's history, had no Republican opposition.