Basketball Legend's Campaign Gets an Assist From His Fame
But Sports Rivalry Could Rebound GOP Incumbent

By Chris Cillizza and Jim Vandehei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 24, 2006

MADISON, Ind., Sept. 23 -- From beauty shops to bars, Baron Hill says, he is besieged by people wanting to talk basketball.

Hill is not a coach. He is a Democratic candidate for Congress.

But that is not how he is known best in these parts, where a basketball goal stands in nearly every driveway. Hill is still the guy who was an all-star guard for Seymour High School -- 35 years ago.

Trying to unseat Rep. Michael E. Sodrel (R), he does not hesitate to invoke his basketball credentials to prove his down-home bona fides. Hill still holds the school record for most points scored (1,419) and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 alongside a "hick from French Lick" named Larry Bird.

Hill, who still exudes an athletic air, sat for an interview in a coffee shop in Madison (population 12,000), whose Main Street could have been the set for "Pleasantville." Of basketball, he said, "When it comes up, I take advantage of it."

But Hill's heroics on the court have not always rebounded in his favor politically. In earlier races, he said, sports rivalries often cost him votes -- in precincts where fans with long memories could not bring themselves to support a Seymour star.

The Indiana 9th is a vivid reminder that control of the House will not turn solely on national debates over interrogation rules or the future of Iraq. Often, elections turn on voters' intuitive reactions about who better represents the values of a district.

Hill learned that lesson the hard way. After serving three terms in Congress, he lost to Sodrel by 1,400 votes in 2004 -- a defeat he is "still trying to figure out." One reason for the loss, he says, is that national Republicans were able to portray him as a liberal whose views were out of step with average voters.

Hill said he got the message: "I have to sharpen my image as it relates to values, even though I have my basketball credentials."

Those credentials are gold in a state whose basketball-as-civic-religion tradition was immortalized in the 1986 film "Hoosiers." (The movie is said to have been based on a 1950s high school in the 9th District.)

On Friday, Hill said, 20 people in Floyd County stopped him to chat about the latest Indiana basketball news.

In a district that includes Bloomington and its famed Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, it is no surprise that Hill is regularly recognized as the lithe point guard who carved up opposing defenses.

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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