Coats and Bayh finally set to do battle

Dan Coats and Evan Bayh may have their Senate match-up after all — 12 years later.

Former Sen. Coats (R-Ind.) said Wednesday that he is moving forward with a challenge to Sen. Bayh (D-Ind.). His announcement commenced a race that was supposed to happen in 1998, before Coats retired in the face of a challenge from the popular former Gov. Bayh.

Coats hasn’t absolutely committed to the race, but he will need to move fast if he is to make the ballot. He will need to collect 500 signatures from each of the state’s nine congressional districts over the next two weeks.

Sources close to the situation say he is all but certain to run.

Coats said he didn’t anticipate a return to public life but, like many Republicans, the former ambassador to Germany found himself compelled to give it a shot.

“After much thoughtful consideration, I have authorized my supporters to begin gathering signatures as I test the waters for a potential challenge to Evan Bayh in 2010,” Coats said in a statement.

He added: “Simply put, our current path is unsustainable, and we need to take bold and immediate steps to get our country back on track.”

In adding Coats to the mix, Senate Republicans gain an unexpected target for their 2010 map. That map now includes 10 targets, which, if swept, would theoretically be enough to retake the chamber.

Bayh’s seat has emerged as a target in recent weeks, but Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita both passed on the race. Coats’s name came out of nowhere late Tuesday night.

Democrats on Wednesday questioned whether Coats had the fire in the belly to take on Bayh, when he shrunk from the challenge a decade ago.

“Coats, frankly, didn’t have the stomach at that time to run against somebody whose positive ratings were so high,” said Democratic consultant Chris Sautter. “And it’s really hard for a challenger who’s been in office and stepped away to come back. Challengers really have to work a lot harder than incumbents.”

“Evan Bayh at that point was on the rise. Dan was more tired,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), a good friend of Coats. “He’s now out, he’s more energized, he wants to get back in the fight.”

But Souder said Coats has to make it clear that he’s ready to do battle.

“He’ll have to convince the people of Indiana that that’s true,” he said.

One of the main reasons Coats stepped aside in 1998 was his aversion to fundraising, said Indiana political analyst Brian Howey, who first reported Coats would run for Senate.

But Howey said Coats has a sense of unfinished business.

“A lot of people thought Coats ducked that one,” Howey said of the 1998 race. “He told me later that he thought if he had stayed in, he could have beaten Evan Bayh.

“This could be an absolutely sensational race.”

The same reason Coats opted to step aside in 1998, though, could be his biggest impediment in 2010. Bayh has more money stashed away than all but two senators, at just a hair under $13 million, and Coats only has nine months to assemble a campaign.

Still, the previously bulletproof Bayh has seen his numbers decline along with other Democrats, and he trailed Pence in a poll conducted before Pence opted not to run. Bayh has also sought, especially since Republican Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, to separate himself from the Democratic leadership.

Republicans take that as a sign of fear.

“There’s no forest fire, but there is an environment in which every incumbent — even very well-established ones — are finding unrest out there,” said John Roos, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Roos added that Coats has a “big name-recognition problem” and will need to raise money like never before.

Democrats will focus on the fact that Coats moved from Indiana to Virginia soon after his retirement and has worked as a lobbyist for clients including Bank of America. When he assembles his signatures to get on the ballot, he won’t be eligible to sign his own name.

“Sounds like a great candidate for the heartland,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan chided. “Was Jack Abramoff not available?”

Republicans have been raising expectations in the state ever since Pence publicly weighed a run two weeks ago. But they acknowledge it remains an uphill battle against Bayh.

The senator, who was once thought to have a future on the national scene, has seen his stock decline somewhat in recent months. He has irritated the Democratic base by starting a Senate version of the Blue Dog caucus.

Democratic sources suggest that fact might lead him to spend his money even more freely on his reelection race.

A GOP source said Coats knows the path ahead is difficult and isn’t taking anything for granted.

If it doesn’t work out, the source said, at least they will have prevented Bayh from spending the money elsewhere.

“I don’t think Coats is going into this with blinders on,” the source said. “And he will at least force Bayh to spend his money.”

Bayh holds his father’s former Senate seat. Birch Bayh lost to Dan Quayle in the 1980 Republican sweep. Coats replaced Quayle when Quayle became vice president.

Former Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) and state Sen. Marlin Stutzman are already in the primary on the GOP side, but neither is expected to provide much of an impediment to Coats.

Sean J. Miller contributed to this article.