Campaign '06: A Republican in Trouble in Indiana

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With rock-solid credentials as a Christian conservative, a vote against the war in Iraq, and a record of bucking both his own House G.O.P. leaders and President Bush, Congressman John Hostettler of Indiana looked to be an unusually strong Republican incumbent in his campaign for a seventh term this fall.

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But with two weeks to go, Hostettler finds himself trailing by double digits in some polls and having to defend himself, not just against charges that he can't beat Democrat Brad Ellsworth, but against claims that he isn't even trying.

Brian Howey, who has written the Indiana-based Howey Political Report since 1994, the year Hostettler was first elected, wrote last week that the congressman "is signaling to key 8th [District] allies that he is essentially pulling the plug on his troubled re-election bid." Hostettler responded the next day with an enthusiastic, if vague, denial, and said he's not quitting the race. Since then, Hostettler has increased his public appearances in and around Evansville, stepping beyond the tight-knit circuit of evangelical Christians on whom he has always most depended — and, some critics say, focused too narrowly — on for support.

"Going into this campaign, I really thought Congressman Hostettler had the most compelling story of any Republican incumbent in Indiana," Howey said. "He voted against the war. ... And he has been more than willing to go against his party — as he did with the Medicare prescription plan, which he called the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society."

But a record doesn't count for everything in a year when even independent Republicans are having a tough time running away from their troubled party. And Ellsworth, a conservative two-term sheriff from the district's largest county, has actually raised three times as much money as Hostettler, whose campaign did not return calls for comment on the race.

Still Hostettler, who has insisted that he is running to win, has had a lot of help from the national Republican Party, which has spent more than $1 million in television airtime, allowing the congressman to wait until the past couple weeks before airing his own ads. Last weekend, he introduced a TV spot that waded into a thorny issue revived by this week's New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in favor of equal rights for same-sex couples. In a voice that sounds like Clint Eastwood, a narrator claims a vote for Ellsworth will mean a vote for Nancy Pelosi and a gay agenda. "Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank, reprimanded by the House after paying for sex with a man who ran a gay brothel out of Congressman Frank's home," the narrator says.

Ellsworth's campaign has not responded to the ad with one of their own, but campaign spokesman Matt Weisman pointed out that Ellsworth supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would keep same-sex couples from marrying. Weisman said the commercial is a distraction from issues of more mportance to voters. "What you hear about is that Washington isn't listening," Weisman said. "The voters are concerned about the fact that is getting harder to make ends meet, and that the minimum wage has not gone up in a decade." In general, Ellsworth is not easy to portray as out of step with local values: he is also against abortion and gun control and for tougher immigration laws.

Hostettler may have thought his vote against the war in Iraq would have neutralized the issue that Democrats across the country are using to great effect. But it isn't necessarily enough to fend off voters' growing disillusionment with the G.O.P.'s handling of the war. "The war comes up a lot and there is a lot of frustration about the war," Weisman said. "Voters here feel we need to do something, that we need a change of course."

He might be right. A poll in the Evansville paper that put Ellsworth significantly ahead in early October also asked why his supporters planned to vote for him. Only a third said it was because "he is my kind of candidate." The other two-thirds were split about evenly between wanting to defeat Hostettler and wanting to help the Democrats regain control of the House.