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March 6, 2012

HOWEY: Is the governor’s race a slam dunk for Pence?

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS — And then there were three, for what Politico may have prematurely described as a “slam dunk” election of U.S. Rep. Mike Pence to the Indiana governorship.

The Indiana Election Commission voted to keep Republican Jim Wallace off the ballot by a 3-to-1 vote on Feb. 24 after more than an hour of testimony. The move against Wallace means that only Pence, Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rupert Boneham will pursue the governorship.

When Wallace came up short in the 7th CD, the Pence campaign seemed ambivalent about him staying on the ballot. But then Daniels ally Mitch Roob filed the challenge and in a heartbeat, he was bounced.

The Pence candidacy shows signs of hitting on all cylinders, whether it’s the record $5 million raised in 2011 to the robust crowds the congressman has been drawing throughout the state, including 400 that turned out for the Miami County Lincoln Day Dinner at Peru. The fly in that ointment is the title “congressman” and the millstone it could carry with Gallup showing congressional approval at 10 percent.

Politico cited the post-Right to Work comments by Gregg and his strange appeal for recall funds against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in its February review as evidence that the race is over before it begins. But the Gregg campaign is retooling, bringing on Tim Jeffers as deputy campaign manager.

The campaign pointed to the Cass County Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Logansport that brought out 200. “We thought 150 would be a great success, so we’re absolutely blown away by the turnout,” Democratic Chairman Paul Ulerich told the Logansport Pharos-Tribune. The chairman credited the Republican romp in the local 2011 general election as the reason for so much involvement. It resulted in the Right to Work legislation Democrats hope will stir the base.

“People are angry,” he said. “Sometimes, it takes a little bit of a kick in the seat of the pants to realize you got to get involved. Everybody can be concerned, but you actually have to step up and get involved. You’ve got to show up, and that’s been kind of a tagline for this dinner. It’s time to show up.”

“I am excited when you come to a county and you see 200 people. I can’t tell you what that means,” Gregg told the crowd to thunderous applause. “And we’re seeing this everywhere.”

Where does this race stand? Pence certainly is a heavy favorite. Going into three of the last four gubernatorial campaigns, the conventional wisdom also favored Mitch Daniels in 2004, David McIntosh against Gov. Frank O’Bannon who was drawing flak from his own party in 2000, and Stephen Goldsmith in 1996. Only Daniels prevailed.

The Pence strengths are his obvious allure with his conservative, evangelical base and his ability as an effective communicator. But there are glaring weaknesses that make us think the Politico “slam dunk” is way too early. Congress is less popular than Nixon was during Watergate or Wall Street during TARP.

Mitt Romney will have problems with the evangelicals and Tea Party in Indiana, and Rick Santorum’s recent rhetoric is a complete turnoff for independents. President Obama’s standing is improving, though that is gauged nationally and not here in Indiana to date.

Because of his assaults against Planned Parenthood, Pence has his work cut out to attract female and independent voters, which in the past have been a vital part of putting together a winning coalition beyond the GOP base.

Pence has revealed nothing about his policy agenda other than he will be seeking new jobs. But even the Daniels’ record on jobs is under attack — with WTHR-TV’s investigative report last night on Indiana Economic Development Corporation jobs that never materialized. There is also that 9 percent jobless rate that doesn’t jell with the Daniels narrative.

And within the GOP, we hear persistent concern about Pence’s overt theology. It comes from a variety of economic conservative quarters, and fairly high up the Republican food chain. Often, the concerns are expressed without prompting and from party stalwarts. As he did with his campaign kickoff in Columbus last June, a Pence political event takes on heavy religious overtones that some in the GOP outside the evangelical orbit are uncomfortable with. Many Hoosier United Methodists, for instance, were raised to lead a Christian life, but not wear it on the sleeve.

When push comes to shove, most of these Republicans will be in the Republican column. And Pence may need every one of them. There’s a decent chance that he will emerge next fall with a wide lead that will put him on the path to victory.

But without a single independent media poll gauging the Pence-Gregg matchup, the “slam dunk” rhetoric is premature.

 

The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Contact him at bhowey2@gmail.com.

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