Indiana Attorney General Race Mirrors Obama-Clinton

Two candidates for a top executive office are closing in on the final stage of a closely watched contest to win the majority of some 2,000 delegates needed to become their party's nominee in November. Sound familiar?

No, it's not the Democratic presidential race between U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's a state race playing out in Indiana and featuring some of the same drama, but on the opposite side of the political aisle - from the appearance of celebrities on the campaign trail to the candidates' hot pursuit of party insiders who will decide the outcome of the battle.

The race in question is for the Republican nomination for Indiana attorney general. It's one of 11 contests across the country this year for the job of top state law enforcement officer and one of five such elections where an incumbent is stepping aside.

The two candidates, Jon Costas and Greg Zoeller, are vying to succeed Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter (R), who recently decided not to run for re-election. On Monday (June 2), they will attend the state GOP's annual convention in Indianapolis, where they will make one final push to win the votes of party delegates and earn the right to face off against likely Democratic nominee Linda L. Pence this fall.

Unlike almost every other state, Indiana forgoes primary elections for attorney general and several other key statewide positions, instead allowing political parties to hold conventions where party insiders - not the public - choose the nominees. While Democrats appear to have settled on Pence ahead of the party's convention June 21, Republicans are sharply divided for the first time in more than a decade over who should be their nominee.

As a result, Costas and Zoeller have spent the weeks leading up to the convention traveling the state, pressing flesh and hosting small get-togethers with party officials in an effort win the majority of the 2,086 delegates eligible to choose the winner by secret ballot. The delegates to be won at the convention come from each of Indiana 's 92 counties and either were popularly elected or appointed by leaders at the county level.

"In this situation, I guess you would say that all the delegates are superdelegates," said Indiana Republican Party spokesman Jay Kenworthy, comparing the GOP convention-goers to the party officials who soon could decide the national Democratic Party's presidential nominee. Democrats close out their presidential primary calendar with votes in Montana and South Dakota on Tuesday (June 3).

In Indiana - as in the Obama-Clinton race - Costas and Zoeller each have won the backing of powerful party leaders. Costas has been endorsed by Gov. Mitch Daniels; Carter, the outgoing attorney general, has backed Zoeller. Both Daniels and Carter will speak at the convention on Monday, though it is unlikely they will stump for their preferred candidates, GOP officials say.

Ahead of the convention, meanwhile, the candidates are trying to make an impression on every last delegate in an effort to sway them one way or the other.

Zoeller, currently a deputy to Carter, has vowed to campaign in key parts of the state "until every one of the delegates has met or talked to me," according to news accounts. He told Stateline.org he has enlisted campaign help from his famous cousin, professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, who is a Democrat but nevertheless will "do a testimonial (at the convention) about what a good guy I am."

Costas, mayor of the northern Indiana city of Valparaiso, has argued that his popularity in what is traditionally a Democratic part of the state would boost the Republican ticket - headed by Daniels' re-election bid - in November. He has racked up the support of elected Republicans in the state, including most of the GOP leaders in the General Assembly. Daniels himself has said he is backing Costas because the candidate would contribute geographic diversity to the party's ticket in the fall.

The Republicans' race has been compounded not only by the state's unusual election rules, but by an unexpected March 23 announcement by Carter that he would not seek re-election. The decision threw a curveball into the nominating process, as a seat that party leaders expected Carter to retain without much trouble suddenly opened and became the focus of intra-party jostling - much to the glee of state Democrats.

While the contest between Costas and Zoeller has not turned negative, it has taken on a sense of urgency that is unusual: the shortened campaign condensed a meet-and-greet process between candidates and convention delegates from a more than a year in most election cycles into about two months this year.

"The chaos and turmoil that the Republican party is going through isn't going to help them. It reflects poorly on their effort to create a statewide campaign," said Thomas Cook, a spokesman with the Indiana Democratic Party. Cook said Democrats are united behind Pence, who has been able to raise funds and make connections "while the Republicans deal with their in-house troubles."

Kenworthy, the Republican spokesman, dismissed the notion that the close GOP race - and the opposing endorsements by Daniels and Carter - would splinter the party and play to the Democrats' advantage. Instead, he said, it has attracted attention to the party and piqued the public's interest.

"The Republican party has been overlooked the past couple of weeks," Kenworthy said, referring to Indiana 's much-publicized Democratic presidential primary on May 6, when Clinton narrowly defeated Obama in the state. "There's finally something going on that some of the media and the public are paying attention to."

Carter's decision to step aside means Indiana this year joins four other states - Missouri , Montana , Ohio and Oregon - where voters will elect a new attorney general in the fall. The current attorneys general in those states, all Democrats, are leaving for a variety of reasons.

In Montana , Mike McGrath is term-limited and will run for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court. In Oregon , Hardy Myers is retiring. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is running for governor, while in Ohio , Attorney General Marc Dann recently was forced from office after a sex scandal. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) on Wednesday (May 28) appointed Nancy Hardin Rogers, law dean at Ohio State University , to serve as interim attorney general until voters choose a permanent replacement for Dann in a special election in November.

Meanwhile, attorneys general in six other states - North Carolina , Pennsylvania , Utah , Vermont , Washington and West Virginia - are seeking re-election this year. Those in North Carolina , Vermont and West Virginia are Democrats; those in Pennsylvania , Utah and Washington are Republicans.

Nationally, Democrats hold a 31-to-19 advantage among state attorneys general, which in most states is considered the second-most powerful position in state government and a frequent launching-pad to the governor's office.