INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana governor's race that was looking like a runaway win for Republican Mike Pence seems to be tightening days before the election, with Democrat John Gregg seeking to capitalize on the national furor over a tea-party backed Senate candidate's comment about pregnancy resulting from rape.
Gregg has worked to paint Pence, a six-term congressman who built his career on pushing social issues in the Capitol, as an extremist whose campaign platform focusing on jobs attempts to hide his social agenda. Gregg only recently has gotten any traction in this deep-red state, in part by narrowing his campaign message.
"For us to move Indiana forward you have to look at who's delivered results, not at the rhetoric, not at the slogans," Gregg said in his closing argument during the final gubernatorial debate last week. "There's no place in Indiana for tea-party rhetoric and that extremism. That's what my opponent, Congressman Pence, has been all about."
The political winds still favor Pence, but Gregg has gained some ground thanks to the firestorm over Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comments in a televised debate that pregnancy resulting from rape is something "God intended." Since then, the Gregg campaign has launched ads depicting Mourdock and Pence as extremists and received support from the Democratic Governors Association that had once written him off.
Even recent polling done for the Pence campaign has shown the race tightening. Pence previously held double-digit advantages over Gregg, a former speaker of the Indiana House.
The Democratic Governors Association, which has focused mostly on tight races in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Washington, has spent $295,000 here in Indiana in the week since Mourdock made his remark, pouring much of that money into Gregg's latest ad. It sent another $100,000 Gregg's way earlier in October.
Gregg also is getting a boost from a Democratic-aligned super PAC, Believe in Indiana, started by Indiana State Building Trades director Pete Rimsans that is spending $530,000 on ads replaying footage of Pence rallying tea partyers in Washington and labeling him an extremist.
To the extent Pence has labeled Gregg during the campaign, it has been to repeat Daniels' attacks that Indiana was "bankrupt" when Democrats ended their 16-year grip on the governor's office in 2004. Instead, Pence has stuck by a frontrunner strategy that includes strict message to a positive, but often vague, message about Indiana's potential greatness.
"I think this is no ordinary time in the life of our state," Pence said in his closing argument during last week's debate. "I think if we elect the right leaders at every level, with renewed energy and good ideas, I think Indiana can take our rightful place as the leading state in the Midwest."
Pence and Gregg have known each other for decades, since they attended law school together. For months, Pence ignored Gregg's attacks, which were usually delivered jovially, and ran with the confidence of someone holding a big lead in the polls.
But the decision by the Pence campaign to release an internal poll showing him handily beating Gregg was a rare sign of weakness from a campaign that has been incredibly disciplined.
By any measure, the Indiana race is still Pence's to lose. He's a conservative Republican in a conservative Republican state that looks likely to go strong for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney next week. And although Pence may not win with the 20-point margin Daniels racked up last time, Gregg still has a steep hill to climb.
Pence has been able to avoid talk about his record on social issues, including his effort to de-fund Planned Parenthood during 12 years in Congress, despite Gregg's many attempts to put Pence's record at the center of the race.
Ironically, it looks like it was Mourdock's slip — and some serious spending by Democrats — that finally put in play Pence's stance on abortions and crusade to defund Planned Parenthood.
While not claiming victory, the Gregg campaign has pushed the argument it is within striking distance. Gregg campaign manager Rebecca Pearcey said the Pence campaign should be "embarrassed" that such a big lead had dwindled while "planning their victory party instead of campaigning across the state on issues that matter to Hoosiers."
Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault says the campaign is "comfortable" with the lead going into Election Day and that the focus was on attracting jobs and improving schools.
Gregg's campaign says it has spent $3.8 million on a strategy that started with schmaltzy spots filmed in his southern Indiana hometown of Sandborn before migrating to a more serious tone.
Pence has aired a series of gauzy ads depicting him as an average, blue-collar Hoosier. While Gregg's campaign says Pence has spent far more on ad buys, Pence's campaign has declined to release the figures.
The spending is a fraction of the roughly $32 million spent by Daniels and former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan in their 2004 match-up and much less than the massive amounts that have poured into the Indiana Senate race.