INDIANAPOLIS -- In a press conference here the other day, State Sen. Baron Hill, the 37-year-old Democratic challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, solved the political problem posed by the bipartisan fiasco over the federal budget deficit.
Hill simply railed at "Washington politicians" generally, without mentioning any party affiliation. And, when asked whether he believed his fellow-Democrats were equally responsible with the Republicans for the mess, Hill said he was "disappointed with the Democratic leadership in Congress." It had knuckled under to the Republicans, he said, and put the burden of deficit reduction "on the backs of working people."
Earlier, Hill observed: "Working Americans did not create this deficit and, clearly, they didn't benefit from it. It's time to stop expecting us to pay for it. To add insult to injury, in Washington they're still calling for tax cuts for the rich while they continue to threaten working Hoosiers with increased taxes and seniors with cuts to health-care benefits."
In this charge, too, the Democratic candidate said only that "they" were calling for tax cuts for the rich. In a burst of bipartisan blame-placing, Hill said at one point: "I think Congress needs to get off its butt, and the White House should do the same."
And later: "There are a lot of politicians, in the political establishment, if you will, that can be held responsible for the economic policies of the 1980s that pushed us into this massive deficit. I blame Republicans and Democrats for it. Supply-side economics was a bipartisan vote."
Hill is proposing that members of Congress be limited to 12 years in office until the budget deficit is wiped out -- tying in to the growing sentiment for term limitations generally, although he says he is against them in normal times.
Aware of the public frustration with Congress, Hill is not content to go after Coats, the Republican incumbent, and the GOP. By pointedly pinning the blame for what's wrong with Congress on both parties, he bids to convince Indiana voters that he really is different, and a genuine outsider.
One reason may be that Coats voted against the bipartisan budget compromise, so he doesn't offer Hill a handy target on the issue.
Another is that Coats, appointed from the House to fill the Senate vacancy created by the election of Dan Quayle as vice president in 1988, hasn't been in the job long enough to have much of a record there.
Still, Coats' eight years in the House give Hill something to shoot at. In August, he ran a very amusing television commercial critical of Coats' heavy use of his Senate free-mailing privileges.
The ad showed an old farmer opening his mailbox and being greeted by a stream of letters gushing out, and then showed two elderly ladies holding umbrellas as letters showered down on them. The ads got a lot of laughs and press attention, but they didn't close Coats' big lead appreciably.
A poll by Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis early this month had Coats ahead, 32 percent to 17, with 51 percent undecided -- the latter figure giving Hill some hope. But that high number is questioned by the Coats campaign. Among likely voters, the same poll gave Coats 55 percent, Hill 31.
Even if there is such an improbable pool of undecided voters at this late date, Hill will have trouble competing for them if he doesn't raise money to be competitive with Coats on the air in the last weeks. Hill has not been on paid television since late August, while Coats, who has raised $3.7 million, has all he needs for a closing blitz.
Still, Tim Phillips, Hill's campaign manager, says "events have conspired nicely to put us in a position to win this thing." He expresses the hope that contributors will see it that way and give Hill what he needs to get his "outsider" message before the voters in time.
But, unless Coats is seen as a real "insider" at the same time, Hill's bid to tap into the much-discussed anti-incumbent mood in the country may be a futile one.
Mike Laudick, Coats' campaign manager, says he's not concerned about such a mood developing out of the budget fiasco. "Hoosiers like to see how things shake out," he says, suggesting that Indiana voters are not likely to take their frustration out just yet on his candidate simply because he's in Washington.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.