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Will it play in Indy?

National | Indiana governor's race could be an indicator of the political appeal of the president's faith-based initiative

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

With a few roots already in Indiana soil, President Bush's faith-based initiative might become a campaign issue in the state's race for governor. All three Republicans vying for the nomination are emphasizing their compassionate-conservative credentials in a race that will pit one of them against a Democratic incumbent who has also backed faith-based organizations.

Mitch Daniels, former director of the Office of Management and Budget for President Bush, became an official candidate this month. He is not likely to be quite so verbal about his Christian faith as the president, but he also has a passion for faith-based initiatives and has a record. So does former U.S. Rep. David McIntosh, who is making faith-based initiatives one of his top three planks in attempting to secure the Republican nomination.

Another Republican candidate, Eric Miller, has had plenty of contact with churches and faith-based groups as a long-time lobbyist for the conservative Advance America organization. Even before Mr. Bush ran for president on the issue, the current governor, Democrat Frank O'Bannon, cranked up a version of the idea, the FaithWorks Indiana initiative, to encourage churches and other groups to apply for government grants to help resolve social problems. (Two other Democrats, state Sen. Vi Simpson and former Democratic Party Chairman Joe Andrew, are also in the race.)

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Mr. Bush has promoted the faith-based initiative at the federal level, but an enduring impact of his idea could come at the state and local levels, testing whether the Republican Party can be truly compassionate-conservative for a generation. Could the party establish a political identity similar to what the Democrats had through Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal or the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s? A healthy debate in state races for governor might test how well this idea can play out in both parties beyond a Bush presidency.

Indiana Family Institute President Curt Smith sees value in this potential debate in the race for governor: "Republicans have not found any unifying theme except tax cuts.... I think this approach is the answer: Bring the social issues back to the private sector."

The faith-based initiative has some roots in Indiana. Mr. Bush launched the idea in a 1999 Indianapolis speech written by Mike Gerson, who had worked for Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). In turn, as a senator and House member from Indiana, Mr. Coats had offered the seeds of faith-based initiatives when he was in Congress through legislation he called the Project for American Renewal. As mayor of Indianapolis in the 1990s, Stephen Goldsmith encouraged churches and other groups to tackle social problems, allowing churches and faith-based groups to compete for city contracts for some neighborhood services. He formalized several of his ideas through an initiative called the Front Porch Alliance (see WORLD, Aug. 5, 2000).

Among the Republican candidates, Mr. Daniels helped start the Oaks Academy in 1998 in Indianapolis, an inner-city classical Christian school with a 50-50 black-white student ratio. Oaks is located in a formerly crime-ridden area now being revitalized by public-private initiatives. Scholarships open opportunities for low-income families to send their children to the school.

Mr. McIntosh was the Republican candidate in 2000, losing to Gov. O'Bannon. He also served in the House of Representatives for three terms in the 1990s and has plenty of campaign experience. He hopes that the name recognition from his previous races will help him earn a second try for the Republican nomination as he proposes ways to boost the state's economy: Balance the state budget (with anticipation of future tax cuts), and "have Indiana be a leader in implementing President Bush's faith-based initiatives to tackle our problems of moral decline and the breakdown of the family."

Mr. Miller points to his lobbying of state government on behalf of faith-based organizations as foundational for encouraging the Bush idea at the state level. He hopes to encourage Front Porch Alliances in many cities: "Here's something that worked in the city of Indianapolis. Let's see how we can do that in Gary and Fort Wayne." He also suggests expanding tax credits to encourage faith-based organizations.

Republicans have lost the last four races for the state's top office to Democrats, even though in those same years, and any other year for a half-century except 1964, the state has voted for the Republican candidate for president. Politically, the faith-based issue may not favor either party, since Gov. O'Bannon has his own initiative. But one Indianapolis-based lifelong Democrat, the Rev. Andrew Hunt III of the Body of Christ Community Church, has thrown his support to Mr. Daniels because of his work with Oaks Academy.

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