Video: Down to the wire in Indiana, N.C.

By Producer
updated 5/5/2008 7:17:27 PM ET 2008-05-05T23:17:27

The protracted race for the Democratic presidential nomination has left many members of Congress facing a tough question: to endorse, or not to endorse?

Those backing a presidential hopeful stand to reap the benefits of having a friend in the White House, but they're also taking a gamble.

The dynamics of this decision are clearly illustrated here in Southern Indiana, where two Democratic House members have been tasked with deciding whether to endorse Sens. Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, or to keep mum on their preference.

Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., 9th District, publicly voiced his support of Obama on Wednesday. His colleague freshman Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., 8th, is making a point of staying quiet ahead of his state's Tuesday primary.

It's an issue further complicated by the fact that both men represent districts that have voted overwhelmingly Republican in recent presidential elections.

“It certainly was a surprise,” said former Rep. Mike Sodrel of Hill’s endorsement of Obama. The Republican offered his thoughts during an interview in Orleans, Ind., over the weekend.

Sodrel, who lost his seat to Hill in 2006, will face off with Hill this fall for the fourth time. He predicted that voters in the 9th District, which comprises the southeast corner of the state, will give heavy support to Clinton this week.

He cited two reasons Hoosier voters likely won’t back the Illinois senator: the recent ruckus over former Obama pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's comments during a San Francisco fundraiser about some rural voters being “bitter” over their economic predicament.

He said these campaign hiccups have caused a “rural backlash.”

“If he had done it immediately, at square one, then I think they probably would’ve accepted it,” Sodrel said of Obama’s public divorce from his former pastor during a press conference last Tuesday. “But he just waited too long. I think most of them perceive now it’s just a political move.”

While Sodrel, who is running unopposed for the Republican congressional nomination, wouldn’t comment on whether he plans to use the Obama endorsement as a talking point in his campaign against Hill, others think a public backing by Democrats in this traditionally conservative stronghold is a political risk.

Darron Cummings  /  AP file
Democrat Brad Ellsworth in Evansville, Ind., in November 2006.
“What did he have to gain by that?” asked Warrick County Democratic Chair Terry White, who decided to come out in support of Clinton this week.

“It’s a smart thing for a congressional candidate here to wait” on endorsing someone, he continued, pointing to Ellsworth, who has not endorsed.

“He’s an intelligent politician,” White added, saying that he, too, anticipates a Clinton victory in the 8th District and the state as a whole, saying her support from Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh may sway voters here.

Ellsworth, who's also a superdelegate, has left himself a little bit of wiggle room if he is asked to make a public endorsement at the Democratic convention this summer.

While he has been shy about talking to the press about his pick, his congressional office did release a statement on the matter.

“I am glad Indiana voters will get to have their say,” he said in the written statement, adding, “I don’t believe the superdelegates should overturn the will of the voters, so if it comes down to the convention, I am inclined to support the candidate they choose.”

Asked in a follow-up if this means the freshman congressman will base his decision on the will of Hoosier Democrats as a whole or the voters in just his district, Ellsworth press secretary Liz Farrar said he will “likely” support the candidate who wins his district, but added he may choose otherwise if “he believes there is a compelling reason.”

This ambiguity buys Ellsworth some time before he must explain his choice to voters in his district, who gave President Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004. But should the race go to the convention, he will be expected to make a public endorsement.

“Mr. Ellsworth is not in an enviable position right now,” said Republican Greg Goode, who will be challenging Ellsworth in November.

“He knows that if he comes out and supports either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, that it will serve as a political liability to his own chances to get re-elected in this district,” continued Goode, the former chief public affairs officer at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

“Given the makeup of our state — a state that hasn’t supported the Democrat candidate for president since 1964 — as well as given the very conservative nature of the 8th Congressional District, he’s in a bit of a bind,” he added.

Video: Bayh: Race ultimately up to the people But despite the conservative leanings of his district, Ellsworth, a former sheriff here in Vanderburgh County, won comfortably in the 2006 Democratic congressional takeover, garnering 61 percent of the vote.

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In addition, his campaign war chest, at just over $1 million in contributions, outweighs Goode’s by nearly tenfold.

And Hill is even in better shape financially, reporting nearly $1.5 million at the close of the first quarter of 2008.

Given both candidates' financial comfort heading into the summer, it remains a mystery why one has endorsed and another rarely even comments on the presidential election.

This illustrates the questions in the political calculation of superdelegates who are up for election themselves: when or if to voice support for their candidate of choice.

But despite the enhanced media attention on the presidential race here, both candidates — if their campaign finance is any indication — are in solid shape. This remains a remarkable feat in this conservative stronghold.

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