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Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat

In Georgia, Democrats look for a candidate against Coverdell

By Stuart Rothenberg

Indiana Senate More than 16 years ago, a young conservative Republican congressman named Dan Quayle beat a veteran Democratic senator and liberal icon named Birch Bayh. Now, in one of those strange twists of fate that makes politics so interesting, Bayh's son, Evan, has a chance to reclaim his father's old Senate seat for the Democrats.

The retirement of Sen. Dan Coats (R) and Evan Bayh's certain nomination as the Democratic standard-bearer presents the Republicans with problems, especially since the younger Bayh, unlike his reliably liberal father, won a reputation as a fiscal conservative during his two terms as governor.

While a number of established Indiana GOP figures considered the race, including Cong. David McIntosh and secretary of state Ann Gilroy, the Republican field lacks proven political heavyweights.

The front-runner for the GOP nomination is Peter Rusthoven, a former Ronald Reagan speech writer who has never run for office before. But Rusthoven, a mainstream conservative, is well-versed in public policy matters, has spent plenty of time in and around politics and looks the part of a senator. More importantly, he works for an influential Indianapolis law firm, which should allow him to raise money. He has already won the support of GOP insiders like Mitch Daniels, a former top aide to Sen. Dick Lugar and an executive with Eli Lilly, and Rex Early, a former GOP state chairman.

Rusthoven's major competition for the Republican Senate nomination is Paul Helmke, mayor of Fort Wayne. Helmke, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress more than 10 years ago, argues that the fact that he doesn't come from Indianapolis is an advantage. The mayor has an unusual claim to fame for a politician: he was a contestant on "Jeopardy," the long-running television game show.

The mayor presents himself as a fiscal conservative very much in the Lugar tradition, but his relatively moderate views on some issues -- he is a supporter of gun control and supported a jobs proposal advocated by Bill Clinton during the president's first term -- could cause him problems in a Republican primary. Helmke has not yet committed himself completely to the Senate race, but he has already been to Washington to test the waters.

A third candidate, attorney John Price, just entered the race last week. Price is a conservative, and he is likely to portray both Rusthoven and Helmke as insufficiently conservative.

Bayh's reputation for resisting tax hikes, and his identification with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, should make it hard for Republicans to paint him as a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. But GOP insiders raise questions about Bayh's real accomplishments, and they are certain to play on Republican and conservative voters' fear of national Democratic priorities by arguing that sending the Democrat to Washington would put him under the influence of party liberals. (That strategy worked for Republicans in 1994 in Wyoming, resulting in the defeat of popular Democratic governor Mike Sullivan.)

Bayh begins with strong statewide name identification, a good image and good poll numbers. The Republicans face a competitive primary and can't guarantee that their nominee will have the money or message needed to beat the former governor. And that's why the Democrats believe that they have a good chance of picking up this Indiana Senate seat next year.

Georgia Senate Republican Paul Coverdell isn't intimidating. But at this point, Georgia's Democrats are still looking for a candidate they believe can beat Coverdell next year, and they are starting to run out of options.

Coverdell, who looks and sounds more than a bit like former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Dana Carvey doing an imitation of George Bush, was elected to the Senate in 1994 after narrowly winning the GOP primary and winning a rare Senate runoff when incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler just failed to get the 50 percent of the vote required by state law.

But while Georgia and national Democrats are pretty confident that Gov. Zell Miller (D) could defeat Coverdell next year, Miller has taken himself out of consideration. Millionaire businessman Michael Coles, who founded the Great American Cookie Company and spent some of his millions against Newt Gingrich (R-GA) last year, was in the Senate race for a while but recently pulled out of the contest. Democrats have turned to Secretary of State Lewis Massey, 34, to plead with him to become their new standard bearer, and Massey says that he is considering the race.

Democratic insiders say that the energetic Massey doesn't want to sit in the secretary of state's office indefinitely, but they acknowledge that a race against Coverdell would be extremely tough and that the youthful-looking Massey might be wise to wait to run for governor or senator.

If Massey opts against challenging Coverdell, the senator's chances for re-election will soar. Coverdell would begin as the favorite against anyone (except Miller), but if the governor, Coles and Massey all decide against the race, the Democrats would need a miracle to test Coverdell seriously in '98. And that's why they are waiting and watching to see what Massey will do.

Spotlight Archives:

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Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
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The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
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Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
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Spotlight 1996

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