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Indiana Democrat Thinks He'll Return to Capitol Hill

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Indiana Democrat Thinks He'll Return to Capitol Hill

Politics

Indiana Democrat Thinks He'll Return to Capitol Hill

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When it comes to politics, Indiana has been solidly in the Republican column for decades. In fact, the last Democrat to win a presidential race there was Lyndon Johnson back in 1964. But things may be changing. This year, three GOP congressmen find themselves in tight contest to keep their jobs.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer reports on one of those races in Indiana's ninth district.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

President Bush rolled through Indiana in the last election, winning by double digits even in Democratic areas including the ninth district. The last Democrat to hold that seat was Baron Hill, an Indiana basketball Hall of Famer who served three terms in the U.S. House, but in 2004, Hill lost to a wealthy Republican businessman named Mike Sodrel, who rode in on the president's coat tails in one of the closest races in the country.

This year, Hill's hoping that with President Bush sinking in the polls, he can win a rematch. In Hanover, a small town in Jefferson County, he visited the Jacksons, who had invited their friends in.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, how are you?

Unidentified Man #1: I'm doing good. How are you doing?

Unidentified Woman #1: This is Robert Adams. He runs a big farm.

Mr. BARON HILL (Congressional Candidate, Indiana): Robert, how are you doing?

Mr. ROBERT ADAMS (Farmer): All right, I think.

Unidentified Woman #1: And he's got a gift for you.

Mr. HILL: You do?

Mr. ADAMS: Yeah. It might be a little tough.

Mr. HILL: What is it?

Mr. ADAMS: Corn and tomatoes.

Mr. HILL: Oh bless your heart.

WERTHEIMER: Robert Adams is in his 80s, still farming. Wearing overalls and a polo shirt, he told me that like other farmers, he's having a hard time with gas prices, but is also concerned about the war in Iraq.

Mr. ADAMS: We just don't need to be over there in Iraq. That's my feeling. And every time a boy gets killed, it hurts. And I've got friends with young boys that's going over there, and you just wonder.

WERTHEIMER: Health care, gas prices and the war. Those are the issues Indiana voters talk about. But Baron Hill hopes to convince Hoosier voters the country is on the wrong track. Here he's talking to a group gathered in a law office in the old river town of Madison.

Mr. HILL: We're paying over $3 a gallon for gas prices right now, and what's the Congress do? They give the oil companies a tax cut when they're making billions of dollars. Now what kind of sense does that make? You know that's a perfect example of how the special interests are being taken care of at our expense.

WERTHEIMER: The Democrats in Washington are already running an ad attacking Mike Sodrel on that same subject.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Man #3: Hi, you've reached Congressman Sodrel. I've gone Washington. Leave a message.

Unidentified Man #4: (as George W. Bush) Hey there, Sodrel, thought I'd say thank you. That's what a president does. You know, Sodrel, the tax breaks you voted for big oil and gas, $2.6 billion? I appreciate it.

WERTHEIMER: The incumbent, Congressman Sodrel, built his family's small transport company into a successful business. He's well liked, with a reputation for straight talk, but this time he's running in a year when more voters lean Democratic. I talked to Sodrel in his campaign office in Jeffersonville and asked if the price of gas is the big issue.

Representative MIKE SODREL (Republican, Indiana): It's certainly one, two or three, depending on the day of the week. You know, it's, immigration is one of the issues here. You know, what are we doing about border security, what are we doing about immigration issues? The price of health insurance is something that's always on everybody's mind, and it's very difficult when it's going up double digits every year.

WERTHEIMER: Everybody wants to make the race about national issues, Sodrel said. Really it's a choice between two people. But since President Bush's coat tails helped in the first election, I asked if this time the president could hurt him.

Representative Sodrel: When I go back to the fact, I disagree with the president. He's my president. I voted for him two times, but I don't always agree with him. And when I disagree, I don't mind telling him I disagree. But the fact that I disagree with him from time to time doesn't mean that I think he's not doing the best job he can overall. We have a lot of serious problems right now. It doesn't matter who's president, they're going to have some really sticky problems to deal with.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that the president would help you if he came to Indiana and campaigned with you?

Representative Sodrel: I don't know if he'll have the time or the inclination, but I'd certainly welcome a visit of the president if he'd like to come sometime between now and the election. You know as I said, when I disagree with the president, I don't mind telling him so, but I'm not running away from him.

WERTHEIMER: Congressman Sodrel is impatient with revisiting the decision to go to war in Iraq, also questions on how the administration has handled it. How we got there, he says, doesn't help with what we do today. Sodrel points out that his opponent actually voted to support the war. He, Sodrel, was not yet in Congress. Hill does not defend that vote. He says he was misled, even lied to. He's angry and counting on enough voters being angry to vote the incumbent out.

Right now Baron Hill is running ahead, but like Indiana basketball, things can heat up in the last period.

Mr. HILL: I'd like for the election to be today, just to be honest with you. Well, you know, the climate is right for us to win, and it feels good. We've done some polling. But you know the election is two months away, and it can change, and so we're going to have to work every single day, every single day, and not let up.

WERTHEIMER: Reporting on Indiana's ninth district, Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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