by JACK COLWELL
Dan Coats said "thank you" when I quoted from a column I wrote back when he was in the Senate, citing then his sense of humor, sense of decency and "low-key, reasoned approach."
Praise it was then. But are those characteristics Republican primary election voters want now as Coats seeks the party's nomination to take back the Senate seat Evan Bayh doesn't want anymore?
In these angry times of partisan hatred, Tea Party wrath and eye-gouging campaign style, will voters in the May Republican primary seek instead a slasher to eviscerate President Obama and all things Democratic?
"You have to be who you are," Coats answered in a telephone interview. "Slashing and burning and throwing red meat to a crowd won't solve our problems."
And he sees problems aplenty: Rising national debt. Unemployment. Uncertain economic future. National security concerns. And, in general, the direction of the country during the Obama administration.
Coats said he had looked forward to running against Bayh, not to slash at the Democratic senator as the quintessence of evil, but to debate serious issues "that will determine the future direction of the country."
Coats thought he could beat Bayh. He did not come back to Indiana to lose. But most political analysts rated Bayh, with all his campaign funds and longtime popularity with Hoosier voters, as the favorite to win.
Now, with Bayh out, they virtually all figure the seat is likely to be won by a Republican.
He likely would be favored if he is the nominee.
However, Coats was skewered by the Demo-cratic Senatorial Campaign Committee within hours after he announced his intention to run, with allegations about his clients and causes as a Washington lobbyist. While Coats was able eventually to show flaws in the some of the opposition research, including the allegation that he somehow lobbied for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, he knows that the negative start, with Republican opponents piling on, did not help.
Also harmful was that video showing Coats speaking to North Carolina delegates at the Republican National Convention. He tells them that he bought a second home in their state for retiring and jokingly asking them not to "tell the good people of Indiana." The purchase was because his wife's elderly parents live there, Coats said, and he was only giving a friendly greeting to the North Carolinians as a representative of the McCain campaign, not renouncing his Hoosier roots.
The last professional poll before Bayh bailed out, by Research 2000, showed Bayh ahead of Coats by 20 percentage points. The first professional poll since Bayh's departure, by Rasmussen Reports, shows Coats ahead of either of two top prospects for the Democratic nomination — by 14 points over Congressman Brad Ellsworth, by 16 over Congressman Baron Hill.
Although the poll also showed that two other Republican contenders, former Congressman John Hostettler and state Sen. Merlin Stutzman, also with double-digit leads in the matchups, the Coats campaign was happy that the poll didn't show any disastrous effect for Coats of Democrats clobbering him and his Republican opponents joining in as a greeting.
Now, with an organization forming and backing from Republicans nationally, with substantial funding sure to come, Coats will concentrate on getting out his own message on the issues, winning the primary and getting back the seat he once held in the Senate.
Coats disagrees with some fellow Republicans who think Democrats gain from ability to appoint a nominee, while Coats and the other GOP contenders fight it out in a primary.
"A primary is very healthy," Coats said. "It sharpens all the candidates. And the winner will come out better prepared." Although the Democratic nominee won't have to spend on a primary, Coats said the GOP money won't be wasted because it will help obtain statewide name recognition and test themes and staff for the fall.
In contrast, he said, Bayh "leaves Democrats in a pickle."
Coats, still disdaining a slasher's knife, said he will run the same way he would have if Bayh were still the opponent. He'll do it his way and hope that the primary voters decide that his more "reasoned approach" still works in politics.
Jack Colwell is a columnist for The Tribune. Write to him in care of The Tribune or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.