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Democrat in Ohio special puts call for 'new leadership' at center of closing argument

Washington (CNN) Democrat Danny O'Connor is putting his call for new leadership in both parties front and center in the final days of the Ohio special election and one week after the candidate delivered an unartful answer on his opposition to Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the party's leader in the House.

O'Connor's final ad, released first to CNN, comes as Republicans are going on air to highlight Ohio Gov. John Kasich's support for Republican nominee Troy Balderson to represent the state's 12th Congressional District and are attacking O'Connor's support for energy regulations.

The election August 7 is the final special election test for both parties ahead of November's midterms. Democrats are eager to close out a strong special election season by overperforming in another traditionally Republican district.

O'Connor's ad, an upbeat and positive spot, features the young candidate speaking straight to the camera about the need to change leaders in Washington. The ad highlights O'Connor's attempts to distance himself from Pelosi, a tactic that a number of Democrats running in historically Republican districts are taking in response to the national Democratic figure.

"The same old politics in Washington just aren't working. Democrats and Republicans are at each other's throats every day, leaving the issues that matter most to your family behind," O'Connor says. "We need new leadership in both parties."

He adds: "Instead of corporate giveaways that pile up debt, let's cut taxes for working people, let's fight back against drug and insurance company greed, let's protect every dime of the Social Security and Medicare benefits seniors have earned."

Democratic operatives working on the race said the closing argument ad is meant to contrast O'Connor's positive messaging with Balderson's use of attack ads.

"Danny is doing something different," said one operative. "This ad is designed to cut through the noise."

That noise is the string of negative headlines about O'Connor's answer during an MSNBC interview last week, where host Chris Matthews pushed the candidate on his opposition to Pelosi. The back-and-forth eventually led O'Connor to say he "would support whoever the Democrats put forward" on the House floor. O'Connor has made his opposition to Pelosi central to his campaign, including highlighting it in his first TV ad.

Republicans were quick to highlight O'Connor's answer.

"After last night's pathetic interview by Danny O'Connor, Democrats' talking points disavowing Nancy Pelosi are as flimsy as the paper they're written on," said Matt Gorman, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Once you get them beyond a noun, a verb and 'new leadership,' they fold like a cheap suit."

O'Connor stood by his opposition to Pelosi -- "No DC-style gotcha politics will change my resolve," he told CNN -- and his aides argued that it is highly unlikely Democrats would put Pelosi forward after November's election if she didn't have the votes from her caucus.

Republicans are closing the race with a mix of messages. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House leadership that has spent $2.6 million on ads in this race, released an ad on Tuesday highlighting Kasich's support for Balderson. Kasich, before becoming governor and running for president, represented the suburban Columbus district for 18 years.

"On August 7, we're going to elect a new member of Congress. Troy Balderson was a partner of mine as a member of the Ohio Legislature and he helped in cutting taxes and turning Ohio around," Kasich says in the straight-to-camera ad. "Troy shares our common-sense values on important issues that face us today. Troy Balderson has my vote."

Kaisch held out on supporting Balderson for months and didn't make an official endorsement until last week. The lack of endorsement created an awkward tension, especially considering Balderson was tying himself to Trump, a Republican whom Kasich has publicly criticized.

"I don't know that it helps a lot," Balderson said of Kasich's endorsement in an interview with CNN earlier this month. "There are different areas that Gov. Kasich is well received, but I got to run on Troy Balderson."

The ad is meant to cut into O'Connor's outreach to Kasich voters, a pitch he has made both in person and with a television ad.

"This really hurts O'Connor," said a Republican operative familiar with the strategy. "These are directed at the people he is trying to court."

In another example of the push and pull for Balderson in the race, his campaign highlighted his support from Trump on the same day the super PAC released its Kasich ad.

"Wow -- it's a huge honor to have President Donald Trump come out so strong in support of my campaign," Balderson said in a fundraising email to supporters. "The Commander-in-Chief needs more Trump Republicans in Congress who will support his America-First agenda, and I'm ready and willing to help."

Although Republicans jumped on O'Connor's answer to the Pelosi question in the press, the National Republican Congressional Committee has yet to put money behind the exchange with a TV ad.

The committee, for example, began airing an ad on Tuesday that attacks O'Connor for supporting regulations that could increase energy prices, targeting senior voters.

"Danny O'Connor doesn't understand what it is like for folks like us," a senior citizen couple says in the spot airing in Columbus. "O'Connor supports regulations that could raise my energy costs 39%."

Not mentioned once in Republican ads: O'Connor's muddled answer on Pelosi.

Republicans have also not made defending the Republican-backed tax overhaul a central part of their closing message, despite the fact that national operatives have stressed the need for campaigns to sell the measure, which passed in December.

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