WABASH, Ind. (AP) — Democrat Brad Ellsworth had just leveled an attack — one he acknowledged was incomplete at best — against his Republican rival for the open Senate seat in Indiana when he asked reporters what they wanted to know.
"When are you going back on TV?" came the question from one reporter.
"I knew you'd ask that," Ellsworth said with a sheepish smile.
It's an obvious question for Ellsworth and his uphill campaign against former Sen. Dan Coats, a veteran lawmaker looking to return to Washington amid voter dissatisfaction with establishment politicians. Trailing in the polls and lacking money to sustain a television campaign, Ellsworth's bid to succeed retiring Sen. Evan Bayh hobbled through the summer and, thus far, has failed to inspire enthusiasm with just five weeks left before the election.
The contest, one the GOP counted among its top targets even before Bayh's surprise announcement in February he wouldn't seek re-election, is now among Republicans' better chances to pick up one of the 10 Senate seats they need to take over as the Senate's majority party.
Ellsworth started running introductory ads early to defend the seat. Those ads are now off the Indiana airwaves as Ellsworth tries to save campaign cash to fight a potential onslaught of national GOP money.
"It doesn't look good," said Jane Long, the head of the Wabash County Democratic Club and a retired factory worker. She supports Ellsworth, but she spent most of his 90-minute meeting this week with this town's residents knitting a green-and-white pattern under the folding table.
While Ellsworth stretched to link Coats and his post-Senate lobbying career with a nearby factory closing and loss of 800 jobs, Long sat next to him and kept fussing with the knitting in her lap.
"There's an awful lot of empty houses," said Long, wearing a brown Ellsworth T-shirt emblazoned with a gold star designed to remind voters the candidate spent a quarter-century in a tan sheriff's uniform before his 2006 election to Congress. "There's a lot of people who have left town."
This isn't exactly a fertile state for Democrats, even during the best of times. Barack Obama carried Indiana in 2008 but lost in 77 of its 92 counties. Almost two years later, Indiana's unemployment rate in August was 10.2 percent. Frustration is high.
"Where's the recovery happening?" asked Bill Hurley, a businessman and self-described conservative who has donated to Coats. "Because it's not here."
Coats' campaign hopes others, too, take out their complaints about the economy on Ellsworth. The two-term moderate supported the Democrats' now-unpopular economic stimulus plan and sweeping health care overhaul. Coats' aides consistently call their opponent "incumbent Congressman Brad Ellsworth."
"I believe that President Obama is taking this country in the wrong direction. My opponent disagrees," Coats says in one campaign commercial now running that features black-and-white, slow-motion video of an applauding Ellsworth standing behind Obama. "As senator, I'll stand up for Hoosier values, not the Obama agenda."
And after one 30-second ad, voters are left believing Ellsworth is an automatic vote for Democrats' agenda, even though he complicated their health care bill by insisting on measures that forbade any tax dollars for abortion.
Without the cash to contest the claims, Ellsworth has been working small groups in person and dispatching his communications aides to pitch reporters.
"I anticipated a much tighter contest and a much more vigorous back-and-forth," Coats said in an interview with The Associated Press after he toured an Indianapolis shipping business. "I think that will probably still come in the last four weeks. Up to this point in time, my opponent hasn't been nearly as aggressive as I thought he'd be in terms of getting out and defending his record."
It is, both camps know, a record that has Ellsworth siding with Democrats and the White House more than voters here would prefer.
"The people of Indiana are saying they want less Washington, not more; they want less spending, not more; they want lower taxes, not higher," said Coats, a skilled politician who can criticize his opponent without coming across as petty or personal.
Ellsworth is far from a natural as a political attacker. At campaign stops, he reminds voters that Coats is a former lobbyist who moved back to Indiana to enter the Senate race. Yet even when trying to blame Coats for jobs lost at a local auto supply factory, he acknowledges the attack might not stick.
"We don't know Mr. Coats' direct involvement in the closing of this plant," Ellsworth said.
Coats, whose law firm advised a hedge fund that sold off the struggling plant in 2007, just clucks.
"Their charges have been so overstated, it's ridiculous. It'd be offensive if it weren't so laughable," he said.
Coats said he had nothing to do with the Wabash shutdown and Ellsworth's campaign cannot prove Coats played any role in the sale. "This guilt-by-association thing has just been going on for months now," Coats said, "and I think most people are dismissing it because they've been factually wrong just about every time."
But without money to do much of anything else, it's about all Ellsworth has left.
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