Thursday, November 16, 2006

Helmke on Bayh: Democrats looking for a winner

Helmke on Bayh: Democrats looking for a winner

For Howey Political Report Nov. 16, 2006

Some time in the next several weeks Evan Bayh is expected to announce his intention to seek the Democratic nomination to be president of the United States. If so, Indiana's former governor will be tested as never before, according to Paul Helmke, the Republican who opposed Bayh's first senatorial run in 1998.

The former mayor of Fort Wayne told HPR that he expects a Bayh presidential bid to focus on the junior senator's moderate brand as well as his role in last week's defeat of Republican incumbents in three Hoosier congressional districts.

In the past 10 days the senator has used every opportunity to promote the Democratic victories in Indiana's U.S. House races as a template for turning other red states blue. Yesterday, nearly 20 reporters and camera crews from three major networks crowded for more than half an hour into the reception area of Bayh's Senate office. The gaggle was advertised as a "press availability" to meet with Bayh and Congressmen-elect Joe Donnelly (IN-2), Brad Ellsworth (IN-8) and Baron Hill (IN-9). Staged during a pause in the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearings on Iraq, the event also afforded reporters an opportunity to probe the senator's stance on the war. Today's New York Times reports Bayh advocated "moderation between the [Democratic] party's liberal and hawkish wings" in remarks during the hearing.

After 12 years at the helm of Indiana's second largest city, Helmke is well acquainted with the partisan forces that tug at a moderate politician. These days he serves as president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence headquartered in Washington.

"My hope is that we're entering a time period when folks are going to start asking what works, not just what fits the philosophy that someone bought into," he said in an interview with HPR. As evidence, Helmke noted that candidates supported by the Brady organization in last week's elections defeated those backed by the NRA in better than 80 percent of the 45 races where they went head-to-head. When asked if he thought the victories represented a tipping point, Helmke said. "I don't think we've tipped yet. I think it's a shift in momentum, clearly."

Republicans anticipate that a divided Democratic party will tilt noticeably left. "The primary mission of the Republican Party in the 110th Congress will be to defeat the agenda of the Democratic Party in Congress," Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN-6) wrote in a statement to fellow House Republicans after last Tuesday's losses. "Each of us must dedicate ourselves to using our talents and expertise to dismantle Democratic arguments and expose their liberal, big government agenda at every turn." Such pressure from the right, constantly pushing at the center, may well empower the Democratic left and weaken party moderates. HPR asked Helmke's take on what that might mean for Bayh's presidential prospects.

"The parties want to win," he said "I think one of the things they're going to look at is how best to win.... Evan's background both as governor and senator has been one to try and find what works. Obviously one of the strengths that a former governor brings to the job is that they've had to do that.

"In my new job I talk to a lot of people with a lot of money that are involved in politics and progressive causes around the country and I get asked a lot about Evan. His name is coming up and a lot of them that are Democrats seem to be looking for someone who can win."

Helmke provides a frank discussion of his senate race in a book co-authored with Andrew Jorash in 2001, Son of a Son of a Politician, which described his opponent as someone who's very good at self-control and accustomed to having things run smoothly for him. Helmke said he believes it is still true today.

"One of his strengths is that he doesn't get ruffled. He keeps his cool under pressure," he said of Bayh. "He doesn't get surprised."

But Helmke believes that sometimes Bayh displays too much polish and calm and not enough personality. "Sometimes if you over prepare, over out-think the thing, you come across as not having real emotions or real concerns there," he said. "My sense is he's worked on that. Some of the reports I've heard is that the speaking style, he has to work on that. You need to be able to connect with the voter."

In the two years since the last presidential election Bayh has visited New Hampshire and Iowa a total of 15 times. Helmke said trials and tribulations on the hustings provide candidates opportunity to "work any kinks in your presentation, you work those out on the campaign trail.

"I think he's getting tested a lot more than he ever did in Indiana. In Indiana he started out well-known, he started out with credibility. Even when he ran for secretary of state the first time everyone knew who he was. As he does the presidential run the folks out there don't know. So, that's where he will get more of an honest appraisal as to how he's doing and I'm sure he's getting that and I'm sure he's learning from it."


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