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Basketball Legend's Campaign Gets an Assist From His Fame

Hill recalls people packed cheek to jowl at every home game -- no small feat given that Seymour's gym holds more than 8,000 people and the town's population is about 18,000. "Back in those days, basketball was everything," said Hill, who graduated in 1971 and is 53 years old.

Although hoops is not so all-encompassing these days, Hill is hoping his athletic résumé establishes him as a credible messenger on the values so important to the district.

Hill's first two television commercials of the race are called "Values" and "Minister." The first focuses on his "Hoosier values," and the second attacks Sodrel for breaking a vow to a minister to run a clean campaign.

Not surprisingly, Sodrel is doing his darnedest to shatter that image. An ad paid for by his campaign alleges that Hill "just doesn't share our values."

Sodrel said basketball was a political asset for Hill -- before the Democrat went to Congress for six years. Sodrel said his opponent's votes against bans on same-sex marriage and flag burning are far more important to voters. "Basketball can't overcome that," he said. "He is out of sync with voters." Still, Sodrel said polls showing him slightly behind at this point are probably accurate.

A recent survey conducted for a news station in Indianapolis shows the Democrat with a 46 percent to 40 percent edge, and Hill confidently proclaims: "I am up. There's no question."

At this time in 2004, Sodrel trailed badly in surveys. But his popularity surged -- and voters in the state resoundingly supported President Bush and Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R). Sodrel is on his own this time; neither Bush nor Daniels is popular in the district or the state -- as evidenced by the fact that three of the Democrats' best chances of defeating incumbents are here in the Hoosier State.

Observers on both sides believe this race will once again be decided by the narrowest of margins, meaning that a few hundred voters who remember Hill -- fondly or otherwise -- from his playing days could make a crucial difference.

Danny Brown, who played for Jefferson County High -- Seymour's rival -- still remembers Hill as a "very quick and very fast guard." Brown, a Republican, says he is leaning against supporting Hill but warns reporters not to underestimate the emotional tug basketball exerts on voters in this area.

Bill Harmon, a district resident who played against Hill as a freshman in 1971, has moved on -- sort of. He said losing to Seymour hurt bad -- but not bad enough to affect his vote. "That was 30 years ago, and you have got to let stuff like that go."

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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