Indiana voters can expect an entertaining race for governor in 2012 featuring two excellent communicators with very different styles.
Democrat John Gregg is a gregarious and folksy former House Speaker who is in his element giving bear hugs and belly laughs on the campaign trail. Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Pence is an outspoken and articulate conservative who easily explains the ideological principles behind his policies.
The likely matchup between the two may prove more competitive — and certainly more interesting — than the last lopsided governor's race. In 2008, well-funded incumbent Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels clobbered Democrat Jill Long Thompson, who found herself bruised by a bitter Democratic primary and without enough money for ads.
This year, many Democrats want to avoid a primary and are quickly throwing support behind Gregg, the only Democrat to announce a run so far. Gregg — whose mustache spurs comparisons to actor Wilford Brimley — promised supporters this week that he would run a campaign full of energy and optimism and focused on jobs.
"It's going to be a happy campaign," he said. "A happy campaign's a winning campaign."
Gregg's personality should make the campaign more lively than 2008, said Joe Losco, a political science professor at Ball State University.
"I'm not sure Pence will be as entertained, but I'm sure the rest of us will be," Losco said.
Gregg is already playing up his down-home attitude. He says he isn't a career politician and knows how to bring Republicans and Democrats together. The comments are obvious digs at Pence, whom Democrats are trying to portray as a Washington insider too conservative for mainstream Hoosiers.
"It's obvious that people like common sense," Gregg said. "I'm glad they do because as an academic I fall real short. But I think I've been steeped in common sense."
Gregg, from the tiny town of Sandborn in southwest Indiana, is no backwoods rube. He's a partner at the Indianapolis law firm of Bingham McHale, a registered lobbyist and was House Speaker from 1996 to 2002. He has hosted a radio talk show and earned four degrees, including a law degree from Indiana University.
Pence shares some similar credentials, including an IU law degree and time spent as a radio talk show host. He was first elected to the U.S. House in 2000 and became one of his party's most outspoken critics of President Barack Obama. The media-savvy Republican held the No. 3 GOP leadership position until he resigned the post after winning a sixth term in November.
Pence announced earlier this year that he would not run for president, and is now focused on the GOP gubernatorial primary against Jim Wallace, a businessman from suburban Indianapolis who also is running. Pence carries an enormous advantage, with more fundraising power and name recognition, but said he isn't taking anything for granted.
"If I have the privilege of being the Republican nominee for governor, then we'll look forward to a civil and substantive debate with the Democratic nominee," Pence said.
Pence, a tea party favorite who often describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," is making a pitch that he can continue growth started by current Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who cannot seek a third consecutive term under state law. Pence is visiting GOP dinners delivering the message that Indiana can become even better by implementing and building on the education overhaul approved this year, making sure law enforcement has the resources it needs and pushing policies that encourage strong families.
"Our focus will be on how we keep Indiana growing," Pence said. "It really all ties together."
Pence plans an official campaign kickoff June 11 at a historic farm in his hometown of Columbus, and Pence said the party will feature country music, family fun and fried chicken. Gregg hasn't announced his plans yet for his official campaign launch.
Political observers give Pence the advantage in the governor's race so far, but there's plenty of time left for the campaigns to take shape before November 2012.
One thing already seems certain, however.
"It will be a fun race to watch," Losco said.