Hoosiers are less motivated by party allegiance than by issues, so the race between Republican Chris Chocola, 40, and Democrat Jill Long Thompson, 50, for the Second District congressional seat is forcing the candidates to try to show some decorum as they go after the 17% of voters who haven't made up their mind yet. The dead-even race has got too heated lately for the liking of Long Thompson, who declared last week that she would make a "change in tone in my campaign." It was an attempt to dial back from controversial Democratic Party ads that charged her opponent, an agribusiness executive, with having "Enron values" and cutting health benefits at his company while boosting executive bonuses. Chocola protested the ads' tone and veracity so strongly that local TV stations dropped them.
The race has come down to a tough scrap over economic issues because any advantage that Chocola hopes he'll have by standing alongside President Bush in support of the war on terrorism is probably matched by Long Thompson's ready references to her husband's career as a fighter pilot and her open support for Bush. But that doesn't mean Chocola isn't trying to make a distinction. After Bush came to South Bend for a fund raiser that pulled in $650,000 for Chocola and the Indiana g.o.p., he told the Washington Post the visit "sent the message loud and clear that there is only one candidate who would stand with the President consistently."
Long Thompson, who served three terms in the House and as Under Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration, has countered the avalanche of g.o.p. cash by going populist. She walked the 100-mile length of the district from Kokomo to South Bend shaking hands, wearing a baseball cap and sending out her message that her opponent is a wealthy ceo out of touch with the grass roots. Chocola, a political neophyte, doesn't try to hide his pinstripes. He motors between campaign stops in a red humvee and usually wears a suit and power tie. His message is that he's an opponent of career politicians and a friend of self-made business leaders. "The trouble with Washington," he says, wielding a trusty g.o.p. formulation, "is too many people there don't know what it takes to meet a payroll."
The most contentious issue in the race is Social Security, since Long Thompson has a lead among voters concerned about it and Chocola needs some of those votes. Long Thompson slams him for once calling the privatization of Social Security a good idea. "It's way too risky," she says, "to put Social Security money in the stock market." Chocola claims that Long Thompson voted in Congress to "raid the Social Security trust fund." Looks like a hard race to cool down.