SOUTH BEND – As the new year dawned 25 years ago, back in 1995, there were two presidential prospects from Indiana. Neither was the mayor of South Bend, a post now a springboard to a top-tier spot in the quest for a presidential nomination.

Joe Kernan, the mayor back then, was popular and went on to serve as lieutenant governor and governor. But nobody in 1995 was suggesting that Mayor Joe should launch a presidential campaign from South Bend the way Mayor Pete has done.

The two prospects from Indiana back then were both Republicans, both following the more traditional political path to run for president. One was a senator. The other had been a senator and then vice president of the United States.

Dick Lugar. Dan Quayle. Neither made it, of course, and for different reasons.

Quayle had been on the Republican ticket for vice president as George H.W. Bush won the presidency in 1988 and then as Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. While Quayle had the qualifications in terms of political experience and widespread name recognition, how his name was recognized wasn’t helpful. He could not shake the image of being a lightweight, even though a lot of the negative perception was a bum rap.

It was then or never for Quayle. And as he contemplated the race, there was a chorus telling him “Never.” A Wall Street Journal column early in 1995 suggested: “The easiest thing to do with Dan Quayle is to not take him seriously.” Then columnist Gerald F. Seib asked why on earth “is this man going to run for president in 1996?”

Republicans wanted somebody sure to keep Clinton from what to them was unthinkable, Clinton reelection. Quayle got the message and decided early in 1995 not to run. Republicans nominated Bob Dole.

Lugar did run. He edged toward the decision, going to a big New Hampshire Republican dinner early in 1995, just a year before the first-in-the-nation primary, important then as now. Unlike Quayle, Lugar had an image as a heavyweight. Too heavy, as it turned out.

Lugar was an expert on foreign affairs, someone the national news media turned to for comment on any international crisis. He was a Rhodes Scholar, smarter than most if not all of the other contenders for the Republican nomination. Too smart, it seemed, as voters in the early tests in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary were more attracted to glitz, negative TV and squabbles over issues less consequential than war-or-peace issues around the world.

While covering a Lugar campaign swing through New Hampshire, I was told by a key activist that Lugar wasn’t doing so well there because: “He’s talking about foreign policy when nobody wants to hear about foreign policy.”

Money, though less of it was spent then, still was very important for a presidential campaign. Lugar hoped to move into second place as the top challenger to Dole. But Steve Forbes quickly bought second place in polls with a ton of money, something still possible today.

The Forbes balloon burst as the Iowa caucus goers turned to something more than ability to spend heavily. Dole finished first, though not by a landslide. Lugar, who just couldn’t get much attention, finished with only 4% of the vote. He was finished – no chance for the nomination – even though he went on to New Hampshire as he promised and edged up to 5% there.

Then as now, you can’t get clobbered in Iowa and New Hampshire and still attract supporters, news media attention and campaign funding. What if Lugar had run for president before he was a senator, back when he was mayor of Indianapolis? Would a Rhodes Scholar Indiana mayor have had a chance 25 years ago? No. Some things are different. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.