Last week, at the Rock the Vote rally at IUPUI, I might have caught a glimpse of the future. It was a hot and hazy day and at the east end of the trampled lawn facing the library tables were set up by the competing political parties. On my left were the Republicans, whose man for governor in the coming election is Mitch Daniels. On my right were the Democrats. Joe Kernan is their guy; he's the incumbent, the former lieutenant to Frank O'Bannon. Kernan became governor last winter when O'Bannon suffered a stroke and died.
Daniels has spent most of his professional life working for people who consider government a problem, not a solution. How, as governor, he intends to make Indiana government an agent for cleaning up our environment, attracting upscale employers and improving our schools is a valid question.
Here's what I saw: There was a crowd of at least 50 people in green "My Man Mitch" T-shirts standing around the Daniels table. They outnumbered the people on the red, white and blue Kernan side by roughly five to one.
Now, I realize that this disparity could be attributed to a lot of things. Most likely it was an accident of timing. But at that moment, given the way the race for governor seems to be going, all those green shirts appeared like a kind of visual aid. A preview, if you will, of what we'll wake up to on the morning after Election Day.
How is it that six weeks before we vote, Mitch Daniels, whose latest job was presiding over a record-breaking federal budget deficit, seems to have the upper hand in a state awash in red ink? The short answer is that Joe Kernan has yet to show up for this race.
This is a mystifying state of affairs. For years, going back to his time as mayor of South Bend, Kernan has been known as a consummate politician. I got a sense of this back in the mid '90s when I was invited to be the fourth for lunch with Kernan and his chief of staff, Mary Downes. Kernan was a terrific conversationalist that day, able to speak with knowledge and originality about the arts and sports, business, technology and education. This was clearly someone with a lively and wide-ranging intelligence, as well as a great personal story. It was hard not to think that he would be a formidable campaigner, a guy able to talk with - and learn from - almost anyone.
So it was a shock to Democrats when Kernan indicated he wouldn't follow in O'Bannon's footsteps and run for governor. Two other candidates, Joe Andrew and Vi Simpson, leapt into the breach, creating what looked like a potentially nasty primary fight. Then O'Bannon passed away and Kernan took over.
A Hamlet-like period followed, as Kernan weighed whether or not to throw his hat in the ring after all. Now some people are probably wondering why he bothered.
Kernan must have known this race would be tough. Daniels is a Republican celebrity with a considerable war chest. Worse than that, though, was the record Kernan had to run on. This state doesn't have a lot to show for its 16 years under Bayh and O'Bannon. Who would have thought that, in retrospect, Bob Orr, our last Republican governor, would look progressive compared to those two.
Kernan's dilemma has been to somehow show respect for the intentions of his predecessors while acknowledging that Indiana is in desperate need of a fresh approach. Instead, Kernan has clung to the O'Bannon legacy as if it were a leaky rubber raft. He has even been willing to risk one of his party's most significant constituencies, environmentalists, with his stubborn support for a new terrain I-69 route.
This has done two things: forced Kernan to play endless defense and allowed Daniels to be the apostle of change.
Daniels' campaign has been smart, down-to-earth and relentless. Currently on his third round of visits to the state's 92 counties, Daniels has effectively addressed the mood of low self-esteem that dogs Indiana's sense of place.
"Ours will be a campaign for those who love Indiana enough to make it better, who believe in Indiana enough to know how much better off we can be ... " he says. This, and a public diet of pork tenderloins and milkshakes, has been enough to win the attention of many Hoosiers who agree there's got to be a better tasting, if not a better, way of doing things.
Daniels has spent most of his professional life working for people who consider government a problem, not a solution. How, as governor, he intends to make Indiana government an agent for cleaning up our environment, attracting upscale employers and improving our schools is a valid question. Doubling the state's hog farms - one of his ideas for reinvigorating Indiana agriculture - suggests his answer might be less than encouraging.
Joe Kernan needs to call Mitch Daniels on this. But even more important, Kernan needs to come to grips with why he chose to run for governor. Then he must make his passion for the office plain to the people of this state. If he doesn't start showing up and convincing voters that there's more than the clouded legacy of the past 16 years at stake, we can look forward to counting a lot of green T-shirts in November.