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April 25, 2011, 8:16 a.m.

“From the mo­ment” 10/11’s de­bate among the three SEN can­did­ates began “to the mo­ment it ended, Hoo­si­er voters were handed a tri­fecta of al­most in­vari­ably dif­fer­ent views.”

In “his first sen­tence,” Rep. Brad Ell­s­worth (D-08) “re­minded Hoo­siers” that he’s a former sher­iff and said Hoo­siers need to ask which can­did­ate will be work­ing for them and which for the spe­cial in­terests. And “in case that wasn’t clear, Ell­s­worth used every ques­tion he could” — wheth­er it was about jobs or term lim­its — “to make sure people knew” the last job ex-Sen. Dan Coats (R) had “was be­ing a lob­by­ist.”

Want More On This Race? Check out the Hot­line Dash­board for a com­pre­hens­ive run­down of this race, in­clud­ing stor­ies, polls, ads, FEC num­bers, and more!

Coats “re­turned the fa­vor, us­ing as many ques­tions as he could to make sure voters knew” that Ell­s­worth voted “nearly 90 per­cent of the time” with Pres. Obama and House Speak­er Nancy Pelosi. And “he used the last ques­tion” — about find­ing ways to re­duce par­tis­an snip­ing in DC — to “stress that he didn’t want” to re­turn to the Sen­ate “to sing Kum­baya across the aisle” (Schneider/Ruth­hart, In­di­ana­pol­is Star, 10/12).

Coats “lam­basted Ell­s­worth,” tak­ing “sharp aim at the new health care law.” Coats: “This was a pent-up, 25-year lib­er­al wish dream, and when they had the votes to push it through, my op­pon­ent was one of those very late votes that brought it to fruition.”

Ell­s­worth “de­fen­ded re­cent” Dem ini­ti­at­ives and “at­tacked Coats for the sev­en years he spent as a lob­by­ist.” Cit­ing hun­dreds of pages of lob­by­ing dis­clos­ure re­ports, he said, “I’ve got his doc­u­ment­a­tion. Either he’s not telling the truth or his law firm is not, and that’s against fed­er­al law.”

But “neither spent much time ar­tic­u­lat­ing a vis­ion for the next Con­gress.” After the de­bate, Ell­s­worth said the de­bate format doesn’t al­low enough time to talk in depth about fu­ture plans. Coats “lamen­ted that there were not enough op­por­tun­it­ies” to dis­cuss how the U.S. can boost a still-fal­ter­ing eco­nomy (Brad­ner, Evans­ville Cour­i­er & Press, 10/12).

Re­becca Sink-Burris (L) — “aptly po­si­tioned between Ell­s­worth and Coats like a de­mil­it­ar­ized zone — stressed to voters that they had a third choice.” She said if they wanted change in DC, voters should first try chan­ging the way they vote and break the Dem or GOP lock (In­di­ana­pol­is Star, 10/12).

Ell­s­worth and Coats both said they were ar­dently pro life, but Ell­s­worth said at a post de­bate press con­fer­ence that Coats had re­ceived money from Planned Par­ent­hood. Coats aide Kev­in Kelle­ms said after the de­bate that Ell­s­worth an­nounced he would vote for the health re­forms be­fore Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) worked out a deal with Obama on pro­hib­it­ing fed­er­al abor­tion fund­ing (Howey, Howey Polit­ics In­di­ana, 10/11).

In­di­ana­pol­is Star’s Tully writes, ul­ti­mately, a de­bate on a Monday even­ing “isn’t likely to be a game-changer. But in a race that many seem ready to call, Ell­s­worth put Coats on the de­fens­ive re­peatedly, for­cing him in­to awk­ward an­swers about his lob­by­ing ca­reer. He did what he needed to do” (10/12).

Win­ning at foot­ball is pretty simple: There’s the of­fense, the de­fense, and the spe­cial teams. As le­gendary coach Don James put it while he led the Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton Huskies to the 1991 na­tion­al cham­pi­on­ship: Win two of those three, and you’ve won the game.

Win­ning at polit­ics is just as straight­for­ward. The vic­tors in a pres­id­en­tial con­test will out­per­form their rivals in at least two of three cat­egor­ies: the na­tion­al at­mo­spher­ics, the state-by-state battle for an Elect­or­al Col­lege vic­tory, and the on-the-ground or­gan­iz­ing it takes to drive your base to the polls.

In ad­vance of the 2012 elec­tions, Re­pub­lic­ans have a clear ad­vant­age in at­mo­spher­ics, while Demo­crats are best­ing the GOP in or­gan­iz­a­tion. Whichever side is able to claim the state-by-state battle will take the White House.

On a na­tion­al level, the mood is so sour that any pres­id­ent would be an un­der­dog. Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing has not topped 50 per­cent in the Real Clear Polit­ics av­er­age since June. He hasn’t been over 50 per­cent in any sur­vey since June 20; in that same time, his ap­prov­al rat­ing has dropped be­low 40 per­cent in three polls.

A sim­il­ar num­ber of Amer­ic­ans dis­ap­prove of Obama’s hand­ling of the eco­nomy, the is­sue likely to de­cide the 2012 con­test. And nearly three-quar­ters of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve that the coun­try is on the wrong track. (One wouldn’t even want to be an in­cum­bent mem­ber of Con­gress right now; just 31 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans told poll­sters they want their mem­ber of Con­gress reelec­ted, while 49 per­cent said they want someone new, ac­cord­ing to a United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll re­leased this week.)

“The at­mo­spher­ics are work­ing for the Re­pub­lic­ans,” said Alex Gage, a GOP mi­cro-tar­get­ing ex­pert. Voters, he said, “are ret­ro­spect­ively mak­ing a judg­ment on the last three and a half years.”

Even as the GOP faces a con­ten­tious primary battle, the mood fa­vors Re­pub­lic­ans. But that primary fight has forged a non­tra­di­tion­al path to the nom­in­a­tion — one that by­passes tra­di­tion­al or­gan­iz­ing in early states and in­stead soars ahead with na­tion­al me­dia and tele­vised de­bates. Few can­did­ates are put­ting to­geth­er an or­gan­ized field team.

That de­cision can have con­sequences. Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Flor­ida, and Nevada — four of the first five nom­in­at­ing con­tests — are key swing states in Novem­ber. In 2008, when Obama and Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton were fight­ing for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, Obama was forced to build or­gan­iz­a­tions in the late-primary states such as North Car­o­lina, In­di­ana, and Vir­gin­ia. Obama left those or­gan­iz­a­tions in place for the gen­er­al elec­tion, when he won states no Demo­crat had car­ried since 1964.

Today, while the GOP fights it out, Obama’s or­gan­iz­ing gap is as evid­ent as ever. In fact, his cam­paign has more staffers on the ground in Iowa than any Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign. “They’ve just de­cided not to do the grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing,” Obama cam­paign man­ager Jim Mess­ina said dur­ing a brief­ing with re­port­ers this week. “Their primary, they’re fight­ing mostly through the me­dia and de­bates.”

That leaves the state-by-state battle as the crit­ic­al rub­ber match. As I’ve men­tioned be­fore, Obama’s team has many op­tions as it pur­sues 270 elect­or­al votes. Mess­ina laid out sep­ar­ate scen­ari­os in which Obama could lose many key states and still hit 270 — a West­ern path to vic­tory, which he said Sens. Mi­chael Ben­net and Harry Re­id demon­strated with wins in 2010; a Mid­w­est plan, which in­cludes Rust Belt states that wouldn’t be happy with Rom­ney’s op­pos­i­tion to auto-in­dustry bail­outs; a South­ern plan, which fo­cuses on win­ning Vir­gin­ia and North Car­o­lina; and even a Flor­ida plan, which in­cludes the states that John Kerry won in 2004.

Obama’s team has learned from Demo­crat­ic mis­takes of the 1990s, when the party threw all of its re­sources at a few swing states. “Our goal is to not go back to the Flor­ida and Ohio days in stay­ing up un­til the middle of the night,” Mess­ina said. “All of our jobs [are] to have as many paths as we can.”

They’ll need them. Re­cent polls in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Flor­ida show Obama lead­ing both Mitt Rom­ney and Newt Gin­grich, but by nar­row mar­gins. Polls taken as re­cently as last month show Re­pub­lic­ans ahead.

There are lay­ers to any pres­id­en­tial con­test. The 30,000-foot at­mo­spher­ics, like the state of the eco­nomy and views of the in­cum­bent, are work­ing against Obama. The 10,000-foot battle for a few swing states, in pur­suit of 270 elect­or­al votes, is dif­fi­cult but fa­vors the pres­id­ent. And at the mo­ment, Obama’s team has a big head start on the level closest to the ground, where his or­gan­iz­a­tion stands tallest (and, in many states, vir­tu­ally alone). Re­pub­lic­ans will work fast to build their own or­gan­iz­a­tion once the gen­er­al elec­tion rolls around, but early or­gan­iz­ing pays di­vidends in the end.

Re­pub­lic­ans may be win­ning the battle to define the race’s at­mo­spher­ics. But Obama’s team has a big head start in or­gan­iz­a­tion­al of­fense and a smal­ler, yet sig­ni­fic­ant, edge on Elect­or­al Col­lege de­fense. Don James would be proud.

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