FORT WAYNE – I’m not sure if it has leaked out yet, but Todd Rokita has officially changed his name on the Indiana primary ballot to Donald T. R. Trump. Not to be outdone, Mike Braun switched his to Donald Brawny Trump. Luke Messer may soon follow, possibly switching to Luke Usually Trump. He will decide before the final week of the primary.

In Indiana, the Republican Senate candidates are clearly wagering that Republicans will rally around the President for at least another 30 days. They will worry about swing voters after the primary.

At this point, only the video war matters unless it is very close. If it depends upon the ground war in a very close race, it is likely Rokita will win. If the vote is extremely low, Rokita will likely win. Almost universally, the small sample polls show Rokita closely battling undecided for the lead, with Braun his closest threat. Both factors may still be just “name identification” results, which is the major reason the race is so fluid. The other reason is a great fear that the “undecided” is actually an “I don’t care” polling result. However, if Rokita cannot keep up in advertising dollars with Braun or even Messer, this race could shift dramatically, and rapidly.

Given that each candidate claims to support the same general conservative principles, it has come down to personalities and who is most like, most loyal to, and the most adoring acolyte of President Trump. The latest wave of ads reflects the jockeying for the “I’m more Trumpian than you” pole position.

1.) Rokita’s ad calling Messer a NeverTrumper: The fact is that all three candidates have expressed some doubts about Trump’s behavior at different times. But to call Messer a “NeverTrumper” is just absurd. Messer has voted with the Trump position in Congress 92.8% of the time, while Rokita has followed suit on 90.0% of votes. This metric obviously has a built-in flaw, because it assumes that what the President supports is actually what he favors (e.g. the budget agreement), but to say Messer is a NeverTrumper is demonstrably false.

2.) Messer’s basketball ad claiming to be on Trump’s team: After stating in classic Messer terms that if Trump got North Korea to give up its nuclear program he deserved the Nobel peace prize, this is Messer’s second attempt to portray himself as the leading Trumpite. While Rokita’s ad may designed to deceive voters about Messer’s actual record, Messer has been the most reserved in his Trumpism. 

As traditional media of all types continue to decline in circulation, listenership and viewership, local news reporting continues to shrink at a rapid pace. The candidates, thus, are more or less on their own to reach voters across the state, past the declining core of party faithful and political activists. Political coverage is all Trump, all the time. The best way to reach Republican voters is to tie yourself to the President.

Messer’s basketball ad is interesting on multiple levels. He starts out talking about Hoosier basketball, though the ad presumably shows Virginia basketball since his son and his son’s team live there. Was the ad filmed in a Northern Virginia gym? If it was filmed in Indiana, did the team of Virginia players all come to visit Indiana? Or were they not actually the real players? Furthermore, did his ad team not remember  the many failed basketball ads over the last 30 years, including a 2016 Evan Bayh ad playing basketball with his two sons in Washington, much to the delight of Hoosier Republicans? 

Trump did steamroll his primary opponents in the critical Indiana primary by storming the state with Bobby Knight, Gene Keady, and Digger Phelps (I don’t think his endorsement from Mike Tyson added much.) While most boys today are playing many sports, and fan attendance is sporadic for basketball events, Bobby Knight remains legendary. But is his appeal tied to basketball, or a memory of good times lost? Knight reminds people of a time when Indiana and America “kicked butt,” as the old expression goes. If Rokita unveils a spot featuring Bobby Knight, he will likely win the nomination. The Messer basketball spot is not as strong.

Braun pursued the Trump mantle aggressively from the beginning, first by framing himself as a businessman and similar to the voters who moved to Trump. They were often blue-collar Democrats from Southern Indiana who switched over to the Trump-led Republican Party. Braun’s brilliant “cardboard twins” ad defined his opponents as the typical Washingtonian establishment hated by the loudest Trump enthusiasts. Then, this past week, he inexplicably aired a rather milquetoast, forgettable new ad. 

The most recent Rokita ads deserve the “Most Trumpian” award. Rokita also earned the Trump raspberry award for another.

First, the raspberry. Even granting that this is a Republican primary and not a general election, why would you assault the integrity of voters who voted in past Democrat primaries before switching for Trump? He’s attacking Braun specifically, but he’s actually attacking all of them. This type of ad has not generally worked in other states for that very reason. Trump touts them as his base, with whom he wants to remake the Republican Party. Are you with him on that or not? This is especially tricky ground since Trump himself contributed to Hillary and has, at various times, called himself a Democrat. So, even the argument that being a crossover Democrat voter is different than seeking a nomination doesn’t work for a Trump enthusiast because that is precisely what Trump did.

On the other hand, Rokita’s “horrors of the results of liberalism” ad is classically Trumpian. It checks off most of the Trump basics with the scary film opening. It isn’t identified as a Rokita ad until much of its time is wasted. Then he’s on a sofa with his family and suddenly emerges firing a gun, presumably to drive away liberal threats to his family. There is a cut-in somewhere in there, where a somewhat red-faced Rokita delivers a conservative message, and it concludes with him putting on a “Make America Great Again” hat. Though unfocused, not unlike a Trump speech, once you realize it is a Rokita ad, you realize that this man likes President Trump. A lot. He’s almost a mini-me (though he hasn’t colored his hair).

Voting has now started. Unless someone has a Mourdock moment, ads will bury the debates. The war is in the ads. No candidate is likely to hold any chips back. They are all in or they are out, potentially forever. 

Souder is a former Republican member of Congress from Indiana.