Democrat John Gregg's chances of winning the governor's office next year will likely hinge on whether President Barack Obama's supporters can work some of the same campaign magic they used in 2008 to turn Indiana a presidential blue for the first time in four decades.
Indiana Democrats scored an initial victory in recruiting the former House speaker to return to politics and seek the governor's office after other Democrats, including former Sen. Evan Bayh, opted not to run. The party establishment now hopes to keep the field clear of any primary challengers.
Gregg is expected to face Republican front-runner Mike Pence, an 11-year congressman who has two key ingredients for electoral success: strong name recognition and fundraising muscle. And while those prospects might be daunting, the Democratic Governors Association says it sees Indiana as one of its best chances to retake the governor's office of the 11 gubernatorial races across the nation next year. Republicans are expected to safely maintain control in North Dakota and Utah, and Democrats will be trying to maintain governor's offices in eight other states.
"It's a top-tier state for us. It's a pickup opportunity, and we think John Gregg is a very good candidate," said Colm O'Comartun, DGA's executive director.
Indiana will be coming off eight years of Republican governorship under Mitch Daniels, and to many, the state's conservative roots might seem to favor another Republican.
But Democrats are hoping the Obama campaign — and its Organizing for America campaign-in-waiting, spun off from the 2008 campaign — will play well in Indiana again, boosting Gregg's chances. That year, a late primary battle with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton that dragged past Super Tuesday — the point at which many presidential primaries are decided — forced Obama to make an abnormal number of campaign stops in a state most contenders typically ignore.
After a narrow primary win, Obama's strong voter registration effort and subsequent turnout, particularly among young voters and African Americans, made him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Whether the stars will align for a strong Obama presence again in 2012 is still unknown. He has maintained a presence here as president, visiting the state five times since taking office.
Republicans say Obama will no longer be able to run with a blank slate in Indiana, defending instead unpopular policies that burned Indiana Democrats in 2010. Republicans say that could create a voter backlash in 2012 akin to what Indiana Democrats suffered in 2010, when they lost one U.S. Senate seat and three congressional seats.
"There's a clear sense of voters' remorse in this state with regards to perpetually high unemployment and out-of-control spending in Washington. The sense we get from travelling the state is that Hoosiers will not be fooled again," said Pete Seat, Indiana Republican Party spokesman.
Pence has already flexed his muscle, albeit quietly, with a fundraiser last weekend that pulled in about $650,000.
And Republicans could get another boost from Daniels. GOP fundraiser Bob Grand said Daniels' decision not to run for president — which could have created strong coattails for a Republican gubernatorial candidate if he ran against Obama in the general election — will likely free him to focus more directly on keeping the governor's office in Republican hands.
O'Comartun won't say how much the DGA will kick into Gregg's campaign just yet. Gregg adviser Steve Campbell said the campaign has met extensively with DGA staff recently but they have yet to talk about money.
But Grand said the Pence campaign will have to plan to raise as much money as possible.
"I don't think it's ever a case where anybody ever concludes early on they don't think they're going to have to raise the maximum amount of money," he said.
Money and presidential coattails might ultimately be less important, though, than the whims of Hoosiers, who can be a fickle bunch and often divide their support among the parties.
As voters moved down the ballot from the Obama-McCain matchup in 2008, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jill Long Thompson lost roughly 300,000 of those Obama supporters — and was trounced by Daniels, who won re-election with an 18-point margin.
In 2004, Daniels beat incumbent Democrat Joe Kernan by 8 percentage points, while President George W. Bush bested his Democrat opponent that same year by 20 percentage points.
And in 2000, Bush won Indiana handily with 57 percent of the vote, while Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon captured 57 percent of the vote in his re-election bid.