PORTSMOUTH, Ohio—After Wednesday’s big debate, McCain-Palin volunteers celebrated what they considered a big victory for their presidential candidate. But the real action was taking place in courts miles away.

It was a legal battle over perhaps the most ominous threat to Barack Obama’s chances in Ohio, a Republican dirty-tricks effort to disenfranchise 200,000 newly registered voters, most of them probably Democrats, on Election Day. That’s enough to swing the state in a close election.

In addition, there were surprising developments in the saga of America’s newest political celebrity, Ohio resident “Joe the Plumber.” I’ll get to him later.

First, the debate. It came as a welcome relief to the two dozen supporters of John McCain who turned out here Wednesday night. As they saw it, their guy finally fought back against Sen. Obama, the Democrat they despise.

No matter that the McCain volunteers were in the minority in picking the winner of the debate. Most of those questioned in post-debate polling thought Obama had won. I did, too. I also thought McCain got off to a good start, which he then managed to ruin with condescending smirks and angry negativity. The prevailing opinion in the room was expressed to me by Daniel Hall, a 1957 graduate of Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. Reagan, in fact, had been the speaker at Hall’s graduation. “I think McCain took him, and I think the American people will think so, too,” he said.

Harnessing such enthusiasm is just part of the Republican effort to carry this state, where the Real Clear Politics compilation of polls puts Obama ahead by less than three and a half percentage points.

Reaching back to dirty tricks they used in the last presidential race, Republicans have demanded that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, disclose the names of newly registered voters whose driver’s license numbers or Social Security numbers don’t match records in other government databases. Republicans, as they did in 2004, can make massive challenges of voters in Democratic areas, creating confusion and slowing the vote. Challenged voters cast provisional ballots, which are counted later. But in 2004 many potential voters walked away from long lines created by the challenges. Some doubted that their provisional ballots would be counted.

A federal appeals court Tuesday ordered Brunner to set up a system to track the voters. Fearing that would be impossible by Election Day, Brunner has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She told The New York Times that database problems could be responsible for the mismatches. “Federal government red tape, misstated technical information or glitches in databases should not be the basis for voters having to cast provisional ballots,” she said.

Ironically, one of those who may have to vote a provisional ballot is the Republican’s debate hero-martyr, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Joe the Plumber, who would pay higher taxes if he earned more than $250,000 a year in his plumbing business.

Casting cold water on the Republican euphoria over the plumber, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s politics blog headlined this morning: “Joe the Plumber may not be Joe, and he may need a provisional ballot.”

The blog said, “There doesn’t appear to be a Joe Wurzelbacher … registered. The Toledo Blade noted online this morning …[that] ‘Linda Howe, executive director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, said a Samuel Joseph Worzelbacher, whose address and age match Joe the Plumber’s, registered in Lucas County on Sept. 10, 1992. He voted in his first primary on March 4, 2008, registering as a Republican. Ms. Howe said that the name may be misspelled in the database.’ ”

The Plain Dealer found that public records databases indicated “that Samuel Joseph Worzelbacher (note the ‘o’ instead of the ‘u’), with the same street and age as the now famous Joe the Plumber, voted in 2002, 2005 and 2007. But he listed the Natural Law Party as his party.”

Joe will have to explain the discrepancies at the polling place, as will many thousands of other Ohioans. Most of them, however, will be Democrats rather than Natural Law Party members. There was also a report in the blog Daily Kos that Joe owes $1,182.98 in taxes and another on MSNBC that he doesn’t have a plumber’s license. Such is the curse of fame.

The challenge of potential Democratic voters is part of the Republican effort to stop a successful Democratic registration drive. The Republicans also are making accusations of massive voter fraud, particularly by ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). It organizes low-income and working-class people in poor urban areas. A major ACORN activity is voter registration.

McCain brought up the charge in the debate. “We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy,” he said.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to speaking at an ACORN event in Los Angeles last month, although I deny trying to destroy the fabric of democracy.)

The Republicans went after ACORN during and after the 2004 election, alleging voter fraud. Some of the U.S. attorneys fired by then-Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales were dismissed for refusing to prosecute the phony allegations.

The combination of a well-organized volunteer grass-roots effort and funny business at the polls on Election Day was enough to give Ohio to Bush. It may work again here and in other close states.

The Republicans intensely dislike Obama. If the energy I saw when I interviewed them here in Ohio’s Appalachia can be directed, it may help McCain win the state.

That is why Obama is not just giving a pep talk when he warns against overconfidence. He and his team know how easily victory could slip away in the last days of the campaign.

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