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Indiana Governor's Race Offers A Touch Of Reality TV

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Democrats have held the Indiana statehouse for the past 16 years. But Gov. Joe Kernan is lagging Republican challenger Mitch Daniels in the polls, and the GOP believes it has its best chance in years of breaking the stranglehold, thanks in part to long-form infomercials touting their candidate.

Daniels, 55, a former budget director for President Bush, has been traversing the state in an RV, visiting each county twice so far, in an attempt to connect with voters on a personal level. "We like to say he's on his third lap," said campaign manager Bill Osterle.

As Daniels traveled the state, the campaign saw on opportunity and sent a camera crew along with him. The result was a six-episode "reality show" called RV One. The Road to Indiana's Future, which showed Daniels meeting with Hoosiers both ordinary and eccentric—from a former tobacco farmer who now raises parrots to Amish on roller skates—and listening to their concerns. The episodes aired late at night and in other inexpensive TV slots—and they took off.

"We wanted to show what he was like in a situation that wasn't staged," Osterle said. "It worked a lot better than we'd imagined."

According to Osterle, polling suggests that a quarter of Indiana's voters have seen the program. Six new episodes are now in the works.

The folksy feel extends to Daniels' Web site, MyManMitch.com.

In addition to the infomercials, Daniels has created more traditional campaign ads. They show Daniels' RV traveling Indiana's roads and the candidate talking to groups about issues, but they are not cut from the infomercial footage. The campaign employs Washington, D.C., media consultant Alfano Communications, but Osterle said Daniels writes his own copy for the ads.

The infomercials have helped a campaign that got off to a rocky start in terms of advertising. One early TV spot that suggested state colleges and universities bypassed local furniture companies for their needs was widely criticized as misleading. And a campaign video poking fun at Kernan's appearance—likening it to that of a cartoon character—was generally seen as a cheap shot; the Kernan campaign this month seized on the backlash in a radio ad with the message, "Hoosiers deserve better."

Though he is the incumbent, this is the first gubernatorial campaign for Kernan, 58. He became Indiana's governor last September after Frank O'Bannon died in office. Running unopposed in the primary, Kernan took the opportunity to run a series of spots introducing himself to Indiana voters.

Like John Kerry, Kernan has talked about his service in Vietnam and used testimonials from his former comrades in arms. The spots also mentioned Kernan's education at Notre Dame and service as controller and mayor of South Bend. The Kernan campaign uses Philadelphia-based media consultancy The Campaign Group.

"Voters knew he was governor, but they didn't know him, his life story and what his background was," said Kernan campaign manager Bernie Toon. "It was a chance to paint a tapestry for his life experience."

Since the May 4 primary, Kernan's ads have focused on his plans for Indiana, which is facing a $1 billion budget deficit. A recent spot talks about Kernan's plan to cut wasteful government spending by "hold[ing] the line on spending and taxes." A voiceover says Kernan and his running mate, Nancy Davis, are "making the changes that matter" and that Kernan is "trusted leadership."

Both campaigns have cut back on advertising for the summer but planning to hit the airwaves again in the fall. Each candidate has raised about $4 million for the race.