Pence’s policy silence may be smart politics

Hoosiers used to the big ideas of Gov. Mitch Daniels' time in office may find themselves a tad parched as they wait on ideas from the early front-runner in the race to succeed him next November.

Rep. Mike Pence leads a small pack of candidates for governor handily in campaign cash and enjoys the status of being the Republican establishment candidate in a GOP-dominated state.

But one of his first campaign promises, made the day before he kicked off his campaign last month, was that he won't talk policy until after the May 2012 Republican primary — which he's widely expected to win.

"I was insulted," said Fishers businessman Jim Wallace, who is challenging Pence for the Republican nomination. "I think that presumes voters don't care or don't know that there should be a serious discussion."

Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd won't comment, and the Pence campaign won't release the names of Republicans who are working on his policy teams and advising him on state issues. But the campaign isn't lacking for experience: Chris Atkins, Daniels' former budget aide, is running Pence's policy operation.

Unfortunately for voters who crave details, Pence's policy silence is brilliant politics, said former Republican state Rep. Mike Murphy, who now does political consulting.

"If you're the front-runner, you want to talk as little about policy as possible because you're already the presumptive nominee," Murphy said. "Any nuance of a policy proposal could drive prospective voters away."

It's up to the underdog to deliver ideas and push the political big dog to debate them, Murphy said.

That is exactly what Wallace has done in the early stages of the race.

During a 45-minute phone call, Wallace laid out plans to cut $6 billion from the state budget, spend an additional $500 million on transportation projects and give local governments greater ability to manage their taxes.

The surface of the political debate, as long as the country is still crawling out of a recession, will still revolve around jobs, regardless of party affiliation. But Wallace dug under the surface to state how he thinks those jobs would be created.

He recalled sitting down with leaders in Greensburg, where Honda plans to add 1,000 jobs at its manufacturing plant. Officials there believe the carmaker would have doubled the number of jobs added if the town's roads were better, he said.

"These are simple little things from a $500 million commitment that could radically change the attractiveness of Indiana to businesses," Wallace said.

Wallace's talk of building infrastructure to attract business is similar to the arguments Daniels made for leasing the Indiana Toll Road when he was running for governor.

Whether or not the ideas are good is for voters to decide. But Wallace has placed them on table, where they can now be aptly dissected.

The Indiana Democratic Party's likely nominee for governor, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, has not outlined any specific proposals for how he would run the state if elected. But he hasn't ruled out discussing specifics.

Instead, Gregg is relying on an old political chestnut, the "listening tour," to cross the state and gauge voter interest while also providing cover for his campaign to craft specific proposals.

"We're still listening, trying to see what's on Hoosiers' minds," Gregg said.

The No. 1 focus of his campaign? Jobs and the economy, he said.

But what exactly that means will be something of a mystery until he puts some proposals on the table.

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