Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Indiana Republican Mitch Daniels remains perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country, among the admittedly small group of those running for reelection this year. But that has been the case for months -- at least since Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt stepped down. And Daniels' opponent, former Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson, has so far been unable either to raise nearly enough cash to challenge Daniels' command of the airwaves or to move the polls in her favor.
This election has always been Daniels' to lose. Daniels has done pretty much what he promised to do during his campaign four years ago, but his sometimes brusque manner in doing so has put many people off. His decisions to impose a daylight savings time regime across the state -- a surprisingly controverial maneuver -- and to privatize the northern tier Indiana Toll Road helped cost his party control of the state House in 2006.
Those issues continue to resonate with some voters, but they are starting to be ancient history for most. "I think he's certainly in better shape now than he was a year ago," says Jack Colwell, a longtime columnist for the South Bend Tribune.
However, homeowners continue to be angry about high property tax bills -- an issue that cost more than two-dozen Indiana mayors, including Bart Peterson of Indianapolis, their jobs last year. Daniels convinced the legislature this year to pass a property tax cap, but it won't begin to help homeowners until well after this year's election.
What's worse, bad economic conditions have lifted the state's unemployment rate. "The state is having significant financial difficulty and all of his ads are basically everything's coming up roses," complains Ann DeLaney, a former Indiana Democratic Party chair.
Indiana's unemployment rate, at 5.3 percent, is below the national average -- and it's certainly better than Indiana's struggling neighbors. The numbers aren't good and won't lead to a coronation, but probably won't prompt mass political unrest, either.
Although the numbers and certain issues may weaken Daniels, so far they haven't done much to boost Long Thompson. In the May primary, she barely beat architect Jim Schellinger, a neophyte candidate who nonetheless had most of the party's establishment backing.
Schellinger has yet to offer his endorsement and much of the talk at the Democrats' state party convention this past weekend was still about healing -- about how there's still plenty of time for unity and for wounds to bind. Last week, Long Thompson announced that state Rep. Dennie Oxley would be her running mate -- someone who emerged only after bigger names (Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and former House Speaker John Gregg) took themselves publicly out of the running.
Long Thompson is way behind Daniels in the money chase and lags in polls. Depending on which one you believe, she's behind anywhere from seven to 14 points. (The most recent one asked about levels of support in different ways, suggesting either that the race was tied or that Daniels holds a 14-point lead.)
And Daniels has been able to take advantage of the power of incumbency, earning high marks in recent days for cancelling a trip to Japan and overseeing prompt relief efforts in the state's flooded and tornado-ravaged cities and towns.
A Long Thompson victory depends on external factors -- a broader erosion of support for Daniels than has been the case thus far. Or maybe an unexpectedly strong showing by Barack Obama in the presidential race.
Indiana seems staunchly Republican, having voted for the GOP candidate in every presidential contest since 1964 -- and, because of its early poll closing time, typically being the first state colored Republican red on network TV maps.
John McCain maintains a double-digit polling lead in the state (Obama narrowly lost the primary to Hillary Clinton), but Obama made Indiana one of the 18 states included in his initial ad buy and has sent over one of his top field operatives from the Iowa caucuses to run his Indiana campaign.
This all may well be a feint, but even the prospect of a contested race in a state typically ignored by national Democrats should lend Long Thompson a boost, if only by increasing turnout in Democratic and African American precincts in places such as Marion County (Indianapolis) and Lake County (Gary, which thinks of itself as part of Chicagoland anyway).
DeLaney points out that although Daniels has had a heavy ad presence on TV for weeks, his "deserves reelection" numbers haven't moved. That may be so, but they haven't gone down, either.
Long Thompson remains something of a placeholder, waiting for outside forces to propel her past Daniels. So far, her rocket launchers haven't been working too well -- she didn't come out of the gate as the party nominee with anything like the momentum she would have wanted -- but she remains in pretty good position if either the political environment or Daniels' own efforts suddenly make life tougher for the incumbent.
There's still a chance that Daniels could win big, says Colwell, but a Long Thompson victory remains an outside chance and would be a squeaker in any event.
"There's a very good chance that he will lose," says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight, summing up the race's dynamics. ""There's no chance that Jill Long Thompson will win."
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