Evan Bayh has stumped in 25 states this year on behalf of both Democratic candidates and his own White House ambitions. Last week the two-term Indiana senator brought his road show to New Hampshire, the first 2008 primary state. Then Bayh returned Thursday and Friday to the political environment that has helped shape his moderate persona -- socially conservative southern Indiana. Bayh campaigned for two potentially victorious House challengers, Brad Ellsworth in the 8th District and Baron Hill in the 9th, whose right-of-center views (like opposition to abortion) mirror their constituencies rather than Democratic orthodoxy.
Dressed in a blue blazer and an open-necked shirt, Bayh, who is handsome in an old-fashioned sitcom-dad way without being charismatic, declared to 150 activists at a Democratic rally here, "I can't begin to tell you how glad I am to be here in Floyd County rather than Washington, D.C. The gulf between our nation's capital and the people of our state and country has never been greater. Back there, it is constant gridlock, sniping partisanship and, I regret to say, too much corruption. In 12 short days, we have a chance to change all that by electing Baron Hill as our next congressman."
On the stump in Indiana, Bayh is friendly but not folksy, eagerly acknowledging half a dozen people in every audience (nods of recognition that may date from the reelection campaigns of his father, Sen. Birch Bayh) but never resorting to any of those heavy-handed ruralisms that were part of Al Gore's political repertoire. Bayh comes across in public like what he probably is in private -- a nice guy who has served two terms as governor and eight years in the U.S. Senate without letting his internal sense of self-importance swell to John Kerry-esque levels.
This trip with Bayh offered one of the last glimpses of the would-be presidential contender campaigning in his natural habitat. While he is not on the ballot this year, Bayh was investing his prestige, as the dominant Democrat in the state, in helping Hill and Ellsworth win House seats in a state that George W. Bush carried with 60 percent of the vote in 2004. (Bayh has also lent his luster to the strong Democratic House challenger in northern Indiana's second district, Joe Donnelly.) But judging from polls and political spending, Hill and Ellsworth were already well on their way. What is happening in these two southern Indiana districts is the same thing that is happening all along the Ohio River, where a solid swatch of Republican congressional territory in three states, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, is poised to go blue. The Democratic tide here and in the Northeast may be strong enough in and of itself to provide the 15 seats needed for the House to change control.
Until recently, through no fault of his own, Bayh had been a stealth presidential contender. The political press corps had crowned Mark Warner and Barack Obama as the "Hot New Faces of '06." But then early this month, former Virginia Gov. Warner made the stunning announcement that he would rather live a normal life than spend the next two years winning hearts and minds in Iowa. Suddenly, Bayh, another former red-state governor and political moderate, stepped out of the chorus to audition for what was supposed to be Warner's role as the alternative to Hillary Clinton.
Bayh's speeches were all part of that ongoing rhetorical experiment to create a stump speech that will inspire Iowa and nurture New Hampshire. A politician hones his stump speech the same way that a stand-up comic perfects his act -- through constant repetition and a close reading of audience reaction.
At a Democratic Party dinner in Clarksville Thursday night, Bayh pumped his right fist like a metronome as he declared, "We have had too much of the toxic politics of Washington, D.C., too much of the divide and conquer, too much of the appeal to people's baser instincts rather than their highest aspirations... The road to national greatness does not lie down the path of least resistance."
At this stage of the still inchoate presidential campaign, candidates are searching for that magic-bullet phrase, like Bill Clinton's constant talk about Americans "who work hard and play by the rules," or Bush's 2000 "compassionate conservatism." Never underestimate the potency of such political catchphrases. Jimmy Carter created a presidency out of his smiling promise to give American "a government as good as its people."
So it is with Bayh and "national greatness," a phrase that he dropped into virtually every Indiana speech. When I sat down with Bayh for an interview at Baron Hill's campaign headquarters in Jeffersonville, he freely acknowledged the importance of big themes rather than small-bore positions in erecting the framework for a presidential campaign. "You've got to have your positions well thought out and they have to add up," he said. "But that's not the most important thing ... I think it's about a greater sense of unity and togetherness. I think it's about a renewed sense of American idealism. And I think all this boils down to a commitment to renewed national greatness."
Talking about a presidential race, Bayh displayed the virtual certainty of a candidate who has moved beyond "maybes" and "ifs." As he put it to me, "You have to be able to look in the mirror and say, 'I'm prepared to do this.' Your family has to be supportive. And then the final step is to do all the practical things like raising money and building an organization. We're on those things, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire."
In fact, in his appearances across Indiana, Bayh expressed an impatience with his current job that would be impolitic for a senator planning on running for reelection. "I loved being governor because you're making decisions, you're responsible for getting things done," he said in Clarksville. "Too often things in Washington are about giving speeches and casting symbolic votes."
While I was traveling with Bayh to get a sense of how his act might translate when it goes national, I was equally intrigued that three GOP-held House seats are in play in a state that has elected few Democrats not named Bayh to high office. "Indiana is kind of a microcosm of the larger story of this country," said James McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University. "There's Iraq, and Indiana has taken its share of hits. The economic decline across the industrial belt, you get that in Indiana too. And you also see increased competitiveness and a higher quality of candidates on the part of the Democrats this year."
Bayh made a similar point when I asked him to explain the Democratic resurgence in Indiana. "We're not easily caricatured here in Indiana," he said. "We're for strong national security, we're for fiscal discipline and we represent the broad center of the country, not only geographically, but perhaps in ideological terms too. It's not easy for the Republicans' slice-and-dice-and-demonize techniques to work on a Brad Ellsworth, a Joe Donnelly or a Baron Hill."
The silver-haired Hill -- a former congressman trying to win back his seat after being upended by Mike Sodrel in 2004 -- has been running hard on the corruption issue, airing an ad highlighting campaign contributions that his opponent received from Tom DeLay and jailed GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham. At a party rally in New Albany, Hill played the populist card as he rattled off a list of Republican reprobates. He began with Cunningham, then moved on to Ohio's Bob Ney and Tom DeLay of Texas and ended with Jack Abramoff. "There's an abuse of power going on in Washington, D.C.," Hill thundered, "and it needs to be changed."
In the adjoining 8th District, Brad Ellsworth, the Vanderburgh County sheriff, is running a strong race without framing the contest in aggressively partisan terms. His opponent is John Hostettler, a socially conservative Republican who has represented this district along the Illinois border since the 1994 Newt Gingrich landslide. Ellsworth, who is probably the closest thing the Democrats have this year to Gary Cooper in "High Noon," comes across as a concerned local sheriff who happens, by chance, to be a Democrat. While other candidates fricassee Bush, Ellsworth said in an interview, "There's not many Democrats who will say this, but I want our president, regardless of party, to be strong."
Of course, Ellsworth has the benefit of a flaky opponent, since Hostettler was caught in 2004 trying to bring a loaded gun through airport security in Louisville. Hostettler is also one of the rare House Republicans who voted against the Iraq war, a decision that he is trumpeting in a TV spot. But the distinctive ad in this southern Indiana race is a Hostettler radio spot that warns that, if elected, Ellsworth will vote for "San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi ... who will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda led by Barney Frank, reprimanded by the House after paying for sex with a man who ran a gay brothel out of Congressman Frank's home." What an odd combination: a gay-baiting, antiwar Republican.
It is strange that Hostettler voted against the war, but Indiana's leading Democrat stoutly supported the invasion of Iraq. That 2002 vote haunts Bayh and complicates his efforts to appeal to the activist base of the Democratic Party. "I wouldn't cast that vote knowing what I know today," he told me. But while other leading 2008 contenders like John Kerry and John Edwards have loudly repudiated their Iraq votes, Bayh has not totally abandoned his hawkish plumage, even though he called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation in 2004 and publicly stated over the summer that we need to develop a withdrawal plan from Iraq. If he hopes to win the allegiance of the antiwar netroots in 2008, Bayh holds few face cards.
But what he offers the Democrats' activist base is a surprisingly potent sadder-but-wiser argument. "I've learned," he said ruefully. "I'm someone who is going to demand a higher level of proof and be more skeptical in asking questions." Talking about his current service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bayh added, "I'm a lot more skeptical these days, asking, 'How reliable is that information? What don't we know out there? How certain are you?'"
As a presidential candidate, Bayh would understand places like southern Indiana where Democrats prosper only by skirting divisive social issues and avoiding vitriolic attacks on Bush. That awareness of what it takes to win an electoral majority can be a strength in the general election and a fatal weakness in Democratic primaries.
During our interview, I asked Bayh whether he was envious of the Obama mania that is sweeping the country. Bayh has the longer résumé; Obama is on the cover of Time magazine. Bayh paused for a second before admitting the obvious. "I'm only human," he conceded, then added, in a deliberately light tone, "but I've decided to save all that for a year from now. You don't want to peak too soon."
Then Bayh alluded to the cyclical nature of the 18-month race for the presidential nomination when he said, "Popularity ebbs and flows," he said. "This process has a cycle and a flow to it ... [Voters] will have infatuations here and infatuations there. Ultimately, what they'll want is someone who can lead the country during incredibly challenging times."
It was a comment simultaneously wise and wan. Bayh sounded like the earnest Midwestern suitor who hopes that the object of his affections will get over the glitz and glamour and recognize his superior virtue and experience. With Warner out of the race, there is an opening for Bayh. The question is whether this red-state senator will find the stirring words and the uplifting music to take advantage of his moment.