Indiana has not enjoyed such a vigorous debate among conservatives in many years.
In the lead-up to the Republican primary on Tuesday, Dan Coats, Marlin Stutzman, Don Bates Jr., John Hostettler, and Richard Behney have given Indiana voters a healthy civics lesson with their arguments over who should be the GOP contender in November for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Evan Bayh.
Because of Bayh's last-minute decision in February not to run for re-election, state Democratic Party officials had to scramble to find a candidate for next fall's ballot and officially will select U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth in May.
The actual differences of opinion among the five Republican candidates are pretty slight. All are pro-life. They all want less government and more free market, in opposition to the liberal thrust of Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress.
The GOP candidates all favor a strong military, although Hostettler has staked out an interesting semi-isolationist position that brings back memories of the 1950s Republican presidential debate between Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower, the World War II hero, thought America had to police the world against communism. Taft favored a more isolationist approach.
In this Senate race, Coats has the strongest and longest record of public service. He was a founding father of compassionate conservatism while serving in the U.S. Senate during the 1990s. He also knows how to talk to Democrats and shift a consensus toward conservative principles.
Coats' endorsements reflect his social and fiscal conservatism. Radio talk show host James Dobson endorsed Coats for his pro-life record and personal integrity, and Dobson's approval can carry a lot of weight with family life conservatives. For some parents, Dobson's best-selling book Dare to Discipline was their first guide to
childrearing. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence's endorsement carries weight because of the Republican congressman's unusual capacity to unite conservatives instead of dividing them.
State Sen. Marlin Stutzman hurt his own cause by attacking Coats with Democratic Party talking points earlier in the campaign.
Former U.S. Rep. John Hostettler's introverted personality has hurt him this time around, as it did in his 2006 loss to Brad Ellsworth for Congress.
Businessman Don Bates is the most intriguing fresh face in the field because he articulates free-market principles so well.
Sometimes Bates goes lightweight, perhaps because it is his first run for office. "If we keep sending the same politicians back year after year, we can expect the same results," he said in a debate at Franklin College. All that suggests is that he chose the sidelines when others were in the game.
Yet he could bring a good perspective to a future race for office, based on his practical experience in business.
Usually in Indiana, Republicans have found ways to avoid these primary battles. Mitch Daniels did it in his first race for governor in 2004, when several other competitors got out of the race once he started running. But for a national office, this kind of internal battle has not been so pronounced in the state since the 1976 Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan vied for dominance of the Republican Party. The more moderate Ford was an incumbent president, and Reagan was challenging him in what became a practice run leading to his successful 1980 bid for the presidency.
Farther back in 1952, when Eisenhower contested with Taft, Eisenhower won the GOP nomination for president, united the party, and led the Republicans to a historic comeback. Despite the Eisenhower-Taft division, Republicans swept into office in a voter reaction to the New Deal and five-straight Democratic presidential victories.
This time the Republicans in Indiana are not split over big philosophical differences. The Democrats already have their candidate in Ellsworth, a southern Indiana Blue Dog former sheriff. He will carry the stigma of voting for the party's healthcare plan.
Maybe the conservative movement in Indiana is big enough now to accommodate minor differences of opinion and still win a fall election.