INDIANAPOLIS, IN (WAVE) - Former House Speaker John Gregg fully expected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to be the issue when he decided to run for governor again in 2016.
"I just say I'm the guy who almost beat Mike Pence in 2012," Gregg said in the commercial announcing his candidacy.
The 2012 result was Indiana's closest governor's race in 50 years, Pence defeating Gregg by 81,664 votes, slightly more than three percentage points of the 2,549,152 votes cast.
Gregg figured that Pence made himself more than vulnerable by supporting Indiana's controversial Religious Freedom Act, which allowed businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on grounds that to do so would violate their religious beliefs. Critics argued that it legalized discrimination. Vocal opponents included the National Collegiate Athletic Association, automaker Subaru of Indiana, which assembles its Legacy and Outback models in Lafayette, and online companies Angie's List and Salesforce.com, both of which vowed to scrap plans for expansion in the Hoosier State.
Until The Donald threw the Trump card July 16, when the GOP's nominee for president confirmed Pence would be his running mate.
That opened a path for former Indiana Republican Chair Eric Holcomb to replace Pence on the governor's ballot.
Pence had appointed Holcomb Lt. Governor only four months earlier, after Sue Ellspermann resigned the post to become President of Ivy Tech Community College. Holcomb had been Chief of Staff for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, and had announced he would seek Coats' seat after the senator announced he would not seek re-election. Holcomb withdrew from the Senate race only days before Ellspermann's resignation.
Subsequently, the state Republican Committee selected Holcomb as its nominee for governor.
Gregg pounced, with a commercial claiming Holcomb was "hand-picked by Mike Pence and 22 political insiders, because Holcomb will rubber-stamp the same old policies."
Holcomb has played up what he considers his key role in furthering the new Interstate-69, part of former Gov. Mitch Daniels' Major Moves $2.6 billion highway infrastructure plan to build 104 new roadways by 2015. Holcomb was Daniel's Deputy Chief of Staff when Daniels announced Major Moves in 2005.
"We need to continue to diversify our economy," Gregg said in the candidates' second debate Oct. 3. "Logistics, agri-businesses and bio-sciences."
"It is in life sciences and bio-sciences," Gregg replied. "But it also is in information technology."
Gregg and Holcomb split sharply on gun ownership and gun control.
"I am a staunch defender of the Second Amendment," Holcomb told the debate audience. "And understand the reason why it's Number 2."
"For the life of me I can't understand why we don't want some dude we won't let on an airplane, go and buy a semi-automatic weapon," Gregg said.
Gregg had been running for more than a year when Holcomb entered the race; giving him a lead in fundraising. But Holcomb out-raised Gregg, $7.7 million to $4.5 million from July to Sept. 30.
Both campaigns and their supportive interest groups have unleashed a torrent of negative ads, but Holcomb's--portraying Gregg as a pro-tax hypocrite earning big money as a lobbyist -- appear to have been more helpful.
A Monmouth University poll showed Gregg leading Holcomb 50-38 percent in mid-October, but Gregg's lead had shrunk to 48-42 percent by Halloween. Libertarian nominee Rex Bell clocked in at 4 percent. That same poll showed Hoosiers favoring Trump over Hillary Clinton for president 50-39 percent.
Gregg and Holcomb have offered prayers for Bell, who suffered a minor stroke Wednesday during an interview in the offices of the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item newspaper.
Thursday, the newspaper quoted the candidate's wife, Susan Bell,as saying he received clot-busting medication in time to be effective and was expected to recover fully as long as he rests.
"Mr. Bell is receiving excellent care, even spending the morning joking with doctors and nurses (at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis)," a posting on his campaign's Facebook page Thursday. "He is fully aware and coherent, communicating as normal...expected to be released soon."