Dave Kitchell: Gregg claims he, not Pence, makes sense
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 5:48 AM
LOGANSPORT - Perhaps the most poignant moment in this year’s campaign for Indiana governor came in the waning moments of last week’s debate.
That was when former House Speaker John Gregg candidly admitted that if voters identified with far right candidates and the Tea Party manifesto, he simply wasn’t their man. If they were Lugar Republicans who felt more comfortable with a six-term incumbent than Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock however, they were – and are -- the people Gregg wants to convince that they have to vote for him.
For a moment, the most folksy gubernatorial candidate Indiana has probably ever had pivoted seriously to the folks he has to convince if he has any hopes of becoming the first member of his party to win the governor’s office since Frank O’Bannon in 2000.
On style points, Gregg was a winner in the debate when he and Rep. Mike Pence finally engaged head-to-head in a conversation that had a tinge of bitterness, but little departure from Pence’s cool approach to his old law school classmate, Gregg. His appeal was Gregg-arious, but it will have to be to more resonant if supporters will be exhorting a Gregg-orian chant on election night next month.
Was that appeal from Gregg sincere enough – and loud enough to be heard? If it wasn’t, it should be the mantra of his remaining commercials, along with two other words: Experience Matters. Pence has none in the Indiana General Assembly and his running mate has only one two-year term. Gregg and his running mate have been integral parts of state government for much of the past two decades and have probably forgotten more about state government than the Pence ticket actually knows. State Sen. Vi Simpson alone has served longer as a public official than Pence.
Unfortunately, Indiana politics in presidential years tends to default to Republican expectations in a way similar to how Sports Illustrated and every preseason football publication defaults to Notre Dame, Alabama and USC – even if Oregon, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Utah have the best teams in the continental 48. To win, Democrats have to simply outplay the competition just as the Boise States do in college football.
The governor’s race presents a stark contrast. Dare I say if Democrats had the governor and lieutenant governor candidates with the state government experience the Pence ticket doesn’t have, the poll numbers would probably be the same? Maybe … maybe not. But Gregg and the Democrats have simply not exploited an advantage. Gregg’s television commercial featuring his friend “Hobo” are nice, but commercials that connect funding approved while he was House speaker to the projects now in place across the state would create more of a hubbub about him as a candidate for governor.
While Gregg’s mustachioed yard signs are popping up in Republican leaning counties, there is a lesson to be learned for his campaign from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. His greatest contribution to party politics and presidential politics is engaging the party in a 50-state campaign.
That made sense from an Electoral College standpoint, and it was enough to swing states such as Indiana to Barack Obama in 2008. It makes even more sense for Gregg to run a 92-county campaign in the closing weeks because there is no Electoral College in Indiana. It’s all a matter of popular vote. If he can make a strong showing in Allen, Tippecanoe, Bartholomew, Vanderburgh, Elikhart, Monroe, Porter, Howard, Vigo, Grant and Delaware counties, there’s a chance that majorities in Lake, St. Joseph, Marion and Knox counties can pull him through. But if the race is out of hand, it simply won’t matter. Democrats will have allowed Pence to skate by with a victory inasmuch as he skated with his wife in his first campaign television commercial.
Former Olympic skater Wayne Seybold, now the mayor of Marion, is much better on the ice, even if he couldn’t win his party’s nomination for 5th District Republican Congressional candidate. Pence is leading based on voter assumption that he is somehow anointed as the governor in waiting because he is the party nominee.
Pence so far in the election has done an excellent job of appearing to stay above the fray of the race and remaining positive. But questions about what he really has accomplished in Washington linger. If he is “one of the hardest working” members of Congress as he claimed in the debate, what legislation can he claim to have passed, and what leadership has he provided that somehow changed Washington for the better?
For now, it is Gregg, not the Republicans, who are faced with the reality that there may very well be 47 percent of the Indiana electorate that will not vote for him. But there is the reality that slightly more than 50 percent of voters put O’Bannon in office in 1996, and that number allows for 47 percent of likely Republican voters to get their way.
Gregg’s hope in thinning the ice beneath the Pence campaign has to be one that is clarified in closing weeks that show him running like the future of his party depends on it. In a very real sense, it truly might.
Kitchell is an award-winning columnist based in Logansport.