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Indiana senator offers Obama risks, rewards

Senator Evan Bayh is a leading candidate to be Barack Obama’s running mate, but he differed from Obama on the Iraq war.
/ Source: The New York Times

As the Senate debate on the use of force against Iraq neared its climax in October 2002, Senator John McCain turned on the floor to Senator Evan Bayh to ask what had led him to take such "a visible, as well as important" role in seeking Congressional consent for military action.

Mr. Bayh, a cautious Indiana Democrat, acknowledged it had not been an easy decision.

"There is reluctance in my heart, as I know there is in the other senators, to contemplate the use of force," Mr. Bayh said, adding that he concluded "we were simply left with no other credible alternative to protect the safety and well-being of the American people."

Six years later, Mr. Bayh is one of the leading candidates to be the running mate of the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama, associates of Mr. Obama say. But Mr. Bayh’s advocacy for the war could complicate his prospects for getting on the ticket.

Mr. Bayh, 52, is a telegenic moderate Democrat, a father of twins entering their teens, an experienced politician who in 2006 briefly flirted with a presidential run before endorsing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The son of a senator, Mr. Bayh was a popular two-term governor who could make Indiana, typically rock-solid Republican in presidential contests, a competitive state and appeal to blue-collar Democrats who have been slow to embrace Mr. Obama.

Mr. Bayh’s support of authorizing force in Iraq stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s oft-stated view that he showed the good judgment to oppose the conflict from the start. After his vote, Mr. Bayh in early 2003 joined Mr. McCain as an honorary co-chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which made regime change in Iraq its central cause.

"He was not only wrong, he was aggressively wrong," said Tom Andrews, national director of the Win Without War coalition, referring to Mr. Bayh. "In my view, he would contradict if not undermine the Obama message of change, turning a new page on foreign policy and national security."

Position on war evolves
Mr. Bayh was unavailable for an interview, but his spokesman, Eric Kleiman, contrasted his evolution on the war with the position of Mr. McCain, saying that Mr. McCain has said he would cast the same vote again. "Senator Bayh has shown the judgment that we need to admit that mistakes were made and we need to learn from them," Mr. Kleiman said.

Eli Pariser, the executive director of the antiwar group, said that Mr. Obama had a variety of factors to weigh in making a choice and that he was not ready to say that Mr. Bayh should be ruled out because of his views at the start of the war.

"We are not going to get into which particular person is good or bad," Mr. Pariser said. "We hope that emphasizing Senator Obama’s judgment against the war is something they consider in making their pick."

Mr. Bayh’s political allies say he now concedes his vote on the war was a mistake, the product of personal assurances from George J. Tenet, the central intelligence director, to Mr. Bayh, a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, that Iraq possessed unconventional weapons.

Risks and rewards
Mr. Bayh’s record points up the risks and rewards for Mr. Obama of adding a running mate from a Republican-leaning state, someone whose votes and credentials could compensate for perceived weaknesses of Mr. Obama but potentially alienate progressive Democrats crucial to Mr. Obama’s success.

But admirers, some of whom are actively promoting Mr. Bayh as a No. 2, say he could complement Mr. Obama in areas like executive experience and economic expertise, while bolstering the image of a generational change. And his earlier allegiance to Mrs. Clinton could help soothe disgruntled Clinton supporters.

Mr. Bayh and Mr. Obama made a joint campaign swing in Indiana last week that would have provided an opportunity for the Obama campaign to gauge the personal and political chemistry between the two men, who have worked together in the Senate on an initiative to promote responsible fatherhood — a signature issue for both.

"Evan has a lot of experience," said Lee H. Hamilton, a former House member from Indiana and a respected Democratic elder. "He has got Hollywood good looks, and he speaks well. He would be very loyal."

Mr. Bayh, whose father, Birch, was a liberal Democratic senator and presidential candidate in 1976, has compiled a moderate-to-conservative record both as governor of Indiana from 1988 to 1996 and as senator since 1999. He was first elected to state office in 1986 at age 30, as Indiana secretary of state.

In the past few years, Mr. Bayh has been a more reliably Democratic vote on social policy, and he opposed President Bush’s nominees to the Supreme Court . But this spring, he frustrated Democratic leaders by holding out against new spending in the federal budget . But that reflects his fiscal conservatism; in Indiana, his record on cutting taxes as governor and leaving office with a $1.6 billion surplus is a hallmark.

Bland and unexciting?
One conventional assessment of Mr. Bayh is that he is a bland, unexciting politician who would not energize a national ticket. His 1996 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was panned. In a recent column, Dick Morris , a former consultant to President Bill Clinton , described Mr. Bayh as a "cream puff" for failing to go on the attack in that speech, a decision Mr. Bayh later described in a book, saying his view was that voters were tired of negative politics.

In the Senate, Mr. Bayh is known to slip away to attend school events for his children, and he rarely gives floor speeches. Aides say he considers committee work to be the best venue for real accomplishment in Congress. Through his membership on the Banking Committee, Mr. Bayh this summer was able to add to the newly enacted housing bill a provision that allows taxpayers who do not itemize to take a deduction for property taxes — a provision important back home where property tax increases have taken a toll.

Despite his strong support for authorizing force in Iraq, Mr. Bayh showed his disillusionment with the conduct of the conflict in December 2004 by calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld . He voted against the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state in 2005, citing her role as an architect of the Iraq war.

He pushed for sending more heavily armored vehicles to Iraq, which turned out to be a benefit for military personnel and Indiana companies that received contracts to produce the equipment. And he has pushed for more focus on the care and treatment of Iraq war veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries caused by the improvised explosive devices used against them in the conflict.

It is not unusual for Indianans to be considered for vice president, and five have served in that capacity, with Senator Dan Quayle the most recent during the presidency of the first George Bush. Mr. Bayh himself was considered potential running-mate material by the last two Democratic presidential contenders — Al Gore and Senator John Kerry , and some Democrats say now may be his time.

"The antiwar people cannot define the Democratic Party ," said Al From, a founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, of which Mr. Bayh was chairman for four years. "I think Evan’s real strength is you get someone on the ticket who has a record of being strong on national security, and that is a very important quality to have."

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.