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June 8, 2014

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Gregg weighs another shot at gov’s office

INDIANAPOLIS — John Gregg made his handlebar mustache an iconic image in his failed 2012 race for governor, turning it into a campaign logo and telling tales of how he stuck to his Yosemite Sam guns when advisers pressed him to shave it.

Gregg’s humor was on display again at the Democratic Party’s recent state convention, which warmly welcomed him during his speech.

Poking fun at frequent out-of-state trips taken by Gov. Mike Pence, which have prompted speculation that Pence wants a 2016 presidential bid, Gregg waved around a prop suitcase with the Republican governor’s name on it.

“It seems the governor has been everywhere of late but Indiana,” said Gregg, setting off raucous cheers.

Back in October 2013, the 59-year-old lawyer from the small town of Sandborn seemed to signal that he was done with politics when he issued a statement he was no longer “actively campaigning” for another gubernatorial run.

The 2012 race was grueling and he’d already spent 16 years in the Indiana House – six of those years as speaker -- before leaving in 2002 to resume a law practice and become a university president. As he says, on the rare occasion when he likens himself to Pence, “Neither of us are wealthy enough not to have to work.”

But Gregg, with that famous ’stache still in place, was also sending a counter-signal: Though it’s not official, he’s ready to run.

“Just because I had dialed things back, doesn’t mean I stopped,” he said in a conversation I had with him this week. Since that 2012 defeat, he noted, he’s appeared at scores of county-level Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners and a slew of other Democratic fundraisers. He’s even walked in a couple parades.

It helps to remember that Gregg came within sight of victory in 2012. Though he’d started in the deep double digits behind the six-term congressman Pence, he ended up losing by less than 3 percentage points. Polling showed the gap narrowing quickly in the last days of the race.

Along with the Libertarian candidate, “Survivor” reality TV star Rupert Boneham, Gregg robbed Pence of a majority victory. Pence won only 49 percent of the vote – the first time in modern history that an Indiana governor didn’t take more than half the vote.

With a few more days, Gregg is convinced he would have won. “Just four or five more days,” he said. “The momentum was going our way.”

Some veteran observers blamed Pence’s narrow win on a disastrous stumble made by fellow Republican candidate Richard Mourdock late in his race for U.S. Senate. Mourdock’s Democratic opponent, now U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, surged when Mourdock commented during a debate that God intends pregnancies that occur after rape.

“I don’t think the Mourdock thing had anything to do with it,” Gregg said of his own surge. “We ran a great campaign.”

How great was a matter for debate. Critics questioned Gregg’s advertising emphasis on his down-home style – what Indiana political analyst Brian Howey called “folksy cornpone.”  

That “just folks” style is still on display, though a bit misleading. When I talked to Gregg, he was on his way to see Eddie Izzard, a British stand-up comic with a wickedly irreverent, and not very Hoosier, sense of humor.

But, then, humor is in Gregg’s DNA. So you can expect to see it on display as he gears up for another shot at the governor’s office.

“Most politicians are pretty stuffy, and I don’t think I am,” he said. “With me, what you see is what you get.” 

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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