INDIANAPOLIS — By all accounts, John M. Mutz, a veteran officeholder who is the Republican candidate for governor of Indiana, should be breezing to victory over his 32-year-old opponent in a state where the national GOP ticket is expected to swamp the Democrats.
Instead, the 52-year-old Mutz is scrambling for his political life, grateful for an endorsement from President Reagan and hoping to grab any coattails he can from Indiana's controversial GOP vice presidential nominee, Sen. Dan Quayle.
Adding insult to injury, Mutz' youthful adversary, Evan Bayh, son of former Sen. Birch Bayh, is scoring points with Hoosier voters by branding the Republican contender an apostle of high taxes and big spending.
"You've got a Democratic candidate for governor who's trying to sound like Ronald Reagan, but he's being financed by organized labor," Mutz complained in an interview.
Democrats Control 27 of 50
Bayh is not the only Democrat who hopes to take a governorship from the Republicans this year. Democrats, who already control 27 of the nation's 50 statehouses, hope to score a net gain of two to four governors' seats this year, despite pessimism over the fate of Michael S. Dukakis, their candidate for the White House.
As in Indiana, Democrats are sounding the theme of fiscal responsibility in many of the 12 states holding gubernatorial elections this year. In three of them, they have high hopes of ousting Republican incumbents.
In Utah, incumbent Republican Gov. Norman H. Bangerter is behind Democratic challenger Ted Wilson, a popular Salt Lake City mayor, primarily because Bangerter campaigned on a pledge of no new taxes and then pushed through a $160-million tax increase.
In Rhode Island, incumbent GOP Gov. Edward DiPrete was considered a sure bet for reelection until the Democratic challenger, Bruce Sundlun, began exploiting a disclosure that a company controlled by DiPrete's family had made a profit of nearly $2 million in real estate deals because of a local zoning board decision. Now DiPrete is regarded by GOP activists as a sure loser.
West Virginia's Moore Trails
The other Republican governor in danger of defeat this year is West Virginia's Arch A. Moore Jr., 65, who is seeking a fourth term against a multimillionaire Democrat, Gaston Caperton, a 48-year-old insurance executive who is well ahead in the polls.
For their part, GOP strategists hope to pick up a seat held by Democrats in Montana, where a Republican state senator, Stan Stephens, appears to be in an extremely close contest with former Democratic Gov. Thomas L. Judge.
Republicans also assert that they have an outside chance of toppling Vermont's Democratic Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin, who won election by only 2 percentage points in 1986, even though she has outspent GOP challenger Michael Bernhardt, a state representative.
In New Hampshire, U.S. Rep. Judd Gregg is expected to continue Republican control of the Statehouse. He is running well ahead of his Democratic opponent, Paul McEachern, for the seat vacated by retiring Gov. John H. Sununu.
And in five other states, incumbent governors appear certain to win reelection. Several have common traits--political caution and a low-profile, good-government approach to their jobs without any dramatic innovations--that cause some political observers to call 1988 the year of the technocrat in Statehouse races.
Those apparently holding safe seats are Democrats George Sinner of North Dakota and Booth Gardner of Washington, and Republicans Michael N. Castle of Delaware, John Ashcroft of Missouri and James G. Martin of North Carolina.
Martin, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, would become the first Republican to win reelection as governor in the history of North Carolina if he defeats Lt. Gov. Robert B. Jordan III, an error-prone campaigner who talked publicly about the state's "redneck vote."
Here in Indiana, the hotly fought contest to replace Republican Gov. Robert D. Orr provides a microcosm of the American political scene in 1988--an extremely costly campaign fought largely with negative television commercials, without any major ideological issues dividing the candidates or the electorate.
Bayh had a lead of 13 percentage points over Mutz in the latest poll conducted by Quayle's family newspaper, the Indianapolis Star. At the same time, Vice President George Bush has a 25-point lead in the presidential polls here, and Republican U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar has a remarkable 53-point advantage over his hapless Democratic challenger.
Bayh, who could become an overnight hero for Democrats if he breaks a 20-year Republican grip on the Statehouse, suggests his tightfisted approach to running the state as a new Democratic doctrine.
"The way to rebuild our party is to show we can govern and be fiscally responsible," Bayh said in an interview. "People say it's conservative--I say it's common sense. We must persuade voters we are not wasting money before we can persuade them to invest in worthwhile projects."