Republican Dan Coats is back — back in Indiana and back pursuing a Senate seat he last held 12 years ago.
The path back, however, hasn't been as smooth as the Republican Party envisioned when it recruited Coats to challenge Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who later decided he wouldn't seek re-election. Coats' long Washington record, years away from the state and challenges from the right have raised some doubts about him securing the nomination in the May 4 primary.
Consider this: Days after he announced he would run, Coats stopped by a local deli to talk to voters. The first question from a married couple: "Where do you live?"
Coats explained that he had just leased a home in Indianapolis and would be selling his house in North Carolina, but the encounter proved emblematic of a fitful campaign.
Coats remains the favorite in a crowded, five-person field, and time is on his side. But there's a growing sense that his two chief opponents, state Sen. Marlin Stutzman and former Rep. John Hostettler, are gaining on him and that Indiana has the potential to illustrate just how dissatisfied Republican voters are with their party.
Most political observers believed Coats would cruise. Instead, a combination of factors — a bumpy opening and feisty primary competition — are conspiring against him.
Whatever the voters decide, the stakes could hardly be higher: Any path to a Republican Senate rolls through the corn fields of Indiana and a poor selection by the GOP will give Democrats, who secured their top recruit for the race in 51-year-old Rep. Brad Ellsworth, an opportunity to hold onto the seat.
Any primary upset will be because of voters like Jack Edwards. He hasn't decided whom he'll vote for, but he is certain it won't be Coats.
"We need a fresh face," said Edwards, 71, of Carmel, Ind.
Michael Lewinsky, 65, of the northern Indiana hamlet of Pleasant Lake, drove to Indianapolis earlier this month to attend a tea party rally with about 3,000 others at the Indiana Statehouse.
"Dan Coats was a party pick and that doesn't stand well for him," Lewinsky said.
From the moment the popular Bayh announced he wouldn't be seeking re-election, Republicans began to talk up their chances. Their hopes were bolstered by the enthusiasm for a political comeback by Coats, 66, who announced his interest in the race days before Bayh dropped out. Coats had retired from the Senate in 1998.
After a decade representing Indiana in the Senate, Coats enjoyed wide name recognition. National Republicans envisioned him as a strong fundraiser. Though he has outraised his opponents, with $378,000 as of March 31, he hasn't delivered the sort of knockout blow that many predicted. His campaign cash has been enough to put him on the air with television ads, likely through the primary.
On the campaign trail, Coats has emphasized his Washington experience. He served on the Senate Intelligence Committee and was ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush.
"I have had to deal with foreign policy and national security issues on an hour-by-hour, day-to-day basis," Coats said during a recent debate.
He has called for repeal of the health care law and argued that sending him back to Washington will restore conservative values.
That sentiment resonates with some.
Dan Dumezich, a lawyer and former state representative who mulled getting into the Senate race, said he backs Coats because of his experience.
"I think he's got the best shot at winning because he has a 10-year record of success," Dumezich said.
Both Stutzman and Hostettler have tried to cast Coats as the less conservative candidate, noting his vote to confirm Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a nominee of President Bill Clinton.
Stutzman, a 33-year-old state legislator, family farmer and trucker with a base in the northern reach of Indiana, won a prized endorsement when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called him the conservative choice in the race. Stutzman has locked in other high-profile conservative supporters, including David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union.
While Stutzman raised $78,260 in the first quarter and had $14,227 on hand, DeMint's backing has led to a $100,000 boost in fundraising, Stutzman's campaign said.
Stutzman's pitch to voters has been that he is a fresh face, untarnished by ties to Washington.
"I've had the opportunity to see how the federal government affects our state," he said. "I understand the long arm ... and how it affects our freedoms and our state government."
Hostettler, 48, has a tight-knit operation run out of his congressional district's churches. His fundraising has been anemic — he had raised $37,176 as of March 31, with less than $10,000 on hand — but he has a history of being outspent drastically in House races and still coming out on top.
With the backing of former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Hostettler has sought to sell himself as the true conservative in the race.
"I'm hearing all over Indiana that what Hoosiers are longing for is a voice not only for conservative values ... but a voice that will be consistent," Hostettler said.
Democrats have targeted Coats' work as a lobbyist for banking firms and his affinity for North Carolina. They gleefully circulated a YouTube video featuring Coats talking about plans to relocate to the Tar Heel State when he retires.
Jackson reported from Washington.
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