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Dan Coats campaigning (AP/Photo by Michael Conroy)

Running scared

Politics | Former Republican Sen. Dan Coats' challenge to Evan Bayh in Indiana frightens Democrats

INDIANAPOLIS-With Republican Dan Coats entering the race to challenge Democrat Evan Bayh for his U.S. Senate seat from Indiana, the GOP smells an upset while the opposition looks to discredit the former senator.

Coats jumped into the fray recently after U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., decided not to challenge Bayh. Other Republican candidates for the nomination to run against Bayh include former U.S. Rep. John Hostettler and state Sen. Marlin Stutzman. But Coats' candidacy clearly scares Democrats, who have been trying to portray him as a carpetbagging lobbyist from Washington, D.C., because he was ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2004 and has represented companies as a lobbyist in the nation's capital since then.

At the top of the Republican ticket, Coats could remove what has historically been a big plus for Indiana Democrats whenever Bayh has run for office. He is the most popular Democrat in the state's history, with two terms as governor and two terms as a U.S. senator. His more liberal father, Birch Bayh, also was a U.S. senator from the state for three terms.

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This year Evan Bayh is more vulnerable than usual because of voter reaction against the Obama administration and its policies. He also is no longer the young and fresh face of the late 1980s, as he has run for president and been on the short list for a vice presidential nomination.

Yet Bayh has never developed a political identity much beyond a passion for the middle of left-right political debates. He also has not faced a strong political challenge in Indiana since he won his 1988 race for governor against then-Lt. Gov. John Mutz.

Coats will at least give Bayh some real competition, similar to what Pence would have brought to the race. Coats represented the Fort Wayne, Ind., area in Congress during the 1980s, and was named to the U.S. Senate seat of Dan Quayle when he became vice president in 1989.

In Congress, Coats came up with positive conservative alternatives to big government efforts to end poverty, and his thinking contributed to the compassionate conservative ideas that eventually landed the presidency for George W. Bush.

In their personalities, Coats and Bayh share a modesty and reserve that seem to fit the profile of what Indiana voters like. Flashy, charismatic types like Bill Clinton or Sarah Palin need not apply.

Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican representing Indiana's 3rd Congressional District, thinks Coats will have to show some fire in the belly to mount a good challenge against Bayh. "What Dan has to prove is he wants it," Souder said. "People want to shake your hand."

The impact of attacks made on Coats by the Democratic National Campaign Committee and other Bayh supporters remains to be seen. They are throwing every piece of mud they can find, hoping something might stick: He is a "lobbyist," he thought about a retirement place in North Carolina, he lobbied for a firm that represented Yemen, he lobbied for another company linked to South American dictator Hugo Chavez.

The Democrats sound like Indiana Republicans who tackled Bayh when he came on the scene in the late 1980s. They said he was not a real Hoosier, he had not really lived in Indiana, and he only had some farm address through his dad down in southern Indiana. Mudslinging might work if there is some substance behind it. But Bayh really was from Indiana, moving to Washington, D.C., as a child because his father was elected to the Senate.

This time the mudslinging may come back to the haunt the Democrats. The issue is whether Coats is a man of character and integrity. On that score, all the mud tossed by the Democrats could just splash back on them.

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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