Democrat Ed FitzGerald already had an uphill fight in his campaign to unseat a well-funded governor.
Now the little-known county executive is on the defensive over questions about why he lacked a permanent driver's license for more than a decade, an issue brought to the surface by 2012 police records that showed him in an otherwise empty parking lot outside an office park at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who isn't his wife.
FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, has apologized for letting his driver's license lapse from 2002 to 2012. He had several temporary permits starting in 2008, but he lacked one for at least a year until he got a license. He also says nothing inappropriate happened in the car, and police didn't cite him. The woman was part of a visiting Irish delegation, and they were trying to connect with others in the group traveling separately.
FitzGerald said opposition researchers seek the worst things to say about candidates during a campaign.
"I've been around for 46 years, and this was what they've come up with," he said Friday at an event in Port Clinton. "It doesn't mean I'm perfect because I'm not. But every candidate has their shortcomings and this is mine. And I don't offer any excuses about it."
The revelations come as FitzGerald should be trying to gain ground with voters less than three months before Election Day. Instead, he's had to devote time from campaigning to answer personal questions.
FitzGerald told supporters in an email Saturday that he regretted that those questions have detracted from pressing issues such as Lake Erie water quality.
"Instead, attention shifted to my carelessness, and that's entirely my fault," he wrote.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Toledo and nearby southeastern Michigan were unable to use tap water last weekend because of unsafe levels of a contaminant in Lake Erie.
A re-election victory for GOP Gov. John Kasich could give Republicans momentum in the presidential swing state and possibly propel Kasich, a former congressman and Fox News commentator, into the 2016 race for the White House.
FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and mayor of Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb, holds the highest elected position in Ohio's most populous county. Yet almost two-thirds of respondents in a July 24-28 Quinnipiac University poll said they don't know enough about FitzGerald to form an opinion.
The poll of 1,366 registered voters found Kasich with a 12-point lead, 48 percent to FitzGerald's 36 percent.
Gerald Austin, a longtime Democratic consultant in Ohio, said it could be difficult for FitzGerald to win over voters who have just learned about him through the recent negative news.
"The only way he can turn this around is by a-wishin' and a-hopin' that something happens with Kasich that brings Kasich down," Austin said. Not a solid plan for winning, he said, but "this is only August and strange things have happened in campaigns."
Still, it could be too early in the race for Ohioans to develop any lasting impression of FitzGerald.
Most voters in gubernatorial elections don't pay much attention until after Labor Day, said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. He said FitzGerald's campaign has time to become more effective.
But Green said the driver's license issue could resonant voters: "Every 16-year-old knows you have to have a driver's license."
FitzGerald's personal troubles over the past week were compounded by fundraising figures that show he's woefully behind his opponent.
Campaign finance reports filed Tuesday show Kasich raised about four times as much as FitzGerald in a roughly two-month span. The governor had $9.3 million in the bank, compared with FitzGerald's $1.9 million, according to June filings.
Green said FitzGerald doesn't have to match Kasich dollar-for-dollar but needs enough to get out his name and message.
"Up to this point, FitzGerald has not been able to put enough money into advertising to change his name recognition significantly," Green said.
Stuart Garson, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said fundraising and messaging will always be tough.
"Because it's challenging doesn't make things impossible," Garson said. "Ed will stay on message. He's a great candidate."
Outside groups could help bolster FitzGerald's campaign, but he must show he's a viable candidate.
Kasich has released positive biographical TV ads about himself, while the Republican Governors Association has gone on the attack. A negative ad running statewide this week by the GOP organization portrays FitzGerald as a "risky" choice.
The campaign says FitzGerald has no plans to abandon the contest. Tuesday was the deadline for him to withdraw and allow the party to appoint a replacement.
Asked whether she foresaw any changes to the campaign's strategy, FitzGerald spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, "Nope, we're just going to push forward."