Wilderness wanderers

"Wilderness wanderers" Continued...

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

"They better have pro-lifers in," Mr. Sabato said. "They better do something about their gay-rights stance. They better make sure that voters understand there will be no gun control under Democratic control. Otherwise they won't win."

Mr. Bayh's personal political journey could provide a sort of roadmap for his party. He grew up to be more moderate than his liberal father, who lost his Senate seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. Evan Bayh ran his father's campaign in 1980 and became aware of the growing network of conservative activists who were taking over the Republican Party in the Midwest. He ran for secretary of state of Indiana in 1986, and then in 1988 led the Democrats in Indiana out of a political wilderness to their first control of the governor's office in 20 years.

While in Indianapolis, he did not govern as a self-identified conservative or liberal. But some of his policies had a decidedly conservative slant: He cracked down on crime, refused to increase taxes, and overruled officials of the state park system who wanted to ban Gideon Bibles from inns and lodges. In the Senate he has portrayed himself as stronger on defense than most of the rest of his party, and he offered only lukewarm support for John Kerry in the presidential campaign.

Mr. Bayh's potential competitors from the moderate wing of the party include vice presidential nominee John Edwards and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. Of the two, Mr. Edwards may have a harder time staying in the public eye, with his Senate seat lost to a Republican and his state going to President Bush in 2004.

On the other hand, with a cellular-phone fortune of some $200 million, Mr. Warner has plenty of money to spend on a presidential campaign. Though limited to a single term as governor, he could run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2006 against Sen. George Allen, himself a possible candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

But can any moderate candidate win the nomination-much less the presidency-in a left-wing party? Plenty of Democrats, especially in Bush states like Virginia or Indiana, are more moderate than the party platform. One example is John Gregg, the former Speaker of the Indiana House, who calls himself a "gun-toting, Bible-quoting Democrat." He's being heavily recruited to run against Republican John Hostettler, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives. Polls show Mr. Hostettler should be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but he keeps winning close races with the help of a grassroots network of church-going evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

With his folksy, friendly manner, Mr. Gregg can speak the Red State language, and national Democratic leaders don't seem to mind. "If they weren't interested in trying to attract moderate and conservative Democrats, they wouldn't be talking to me," he says. "They know I'm pro-life, pro-death penalty. I'm against homosexual marriages. That's why they're coming after me."

In the midst of the debate among the Democrats, even some more traditional liberals seem to be trying to reach for the middle. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, for example, is staking out a more restrictive position on immigration. And Howard Dean supporters are claiming he was a fairly moderate, pro-death penalty governor whose liberal reputation stems largely from his views on the war in Iraq.

Still, in his race for DNC chairman, Mr. Dean is clearly the darling of the party's liberal wing, and his success or failure could forecast the future of Mr. Bayh or Mr. Warner. "What happens with the DNC election will tell us a lot about whether the Democratic Party is going to change," says Mr. Schmul. "If Tim Roemer is elected, that is a sign of political change. If Howard Dean is elected, we are looking at a continuation of the status quo."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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