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Indiana political parties tangle with identities

– As Indiana’s two major political parties met to rally their troops ahead of November’s elections, their party leaders sought ways to hold together various factions and lead them to victory this fall, which is not always an easy task.

Republicans meeting for their convention in Fort Wayne this past weekend spent hours voting on who should be their pick for treasurer and fought over whether gay marriage should be addressed in their party platform. And Republican Party Chairman Tim Berry searched for ways to keep them together.

As he looked to inspire the roughly 1,500 delegates, Berry ticked down a list of the things that unified them. Playing on the convention’s “One party working for Indiana” slogan, Berry talked of opposition to tax hikes and Environmental Protection Agency regulations and support for war veterans and alternatives to the federal health care overhaul.

He ended with a none-too-subtle dig against former Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, who sports a trademark walrus-style mustache and is pondering another run in 2016.

“And while the Democrats, while they’re focused on whether the mustache is going to run in 2016, we’re the one party focused on winning in 2014,” he said to cheers.

But the following day, a key fracture within the party, over the issue of gay marriage, became strikingly visible during a vote on the party’s platform – an umbrella document stating the values of the party and its members. Social moderates in the party fought to pull language in the document opposing gay marriage. During the vote, the delegates gathered in the convention hall were asked to stand if they supported the effort.

A head count was never taken, but supporters of marriage being between one man and one woman were in a clear majority.

In many ways, conventions are an open display of the inherent diversity of America’s political parties – not on the stage, with its scripted speakers, but on the floor, where activists and operatives chew over the party’s future and wring their hands about November – 2014, 2015, 2016 and beyond.

They also become balancing acts for party leaders looking to hold together different factions. For tea partyers, establishment Republicans, rural delegates and urban professionals at the Republican convention, that meant knocking Democrats.

Kelly Mitchell, who won a surprising victory in the Republican treasurer’s race, got some laughs with a clever hit against her November opponent, Democrat Mike Boland, who built a career in Illinois politics before moving to Indiana in 2012.

“I’m not sure he’s unpacked all his bags yet,” she said. “Perhaps they don’t understand what we think of Illinois state politics here in Indiana.”

The same was true for Indiana’s Democrats at their convention the week before in Indianapolis. Former 2012 gubernatorial candidate John Gregg – with his trademark mustache – drew applause with his knocks on Gov. Mike Pence, including a prop suitcase he lifted on stage as part of a bit claiming the Republican governor is too focused on his own future.

Indiana’s Democrats, who are still struggling to lock in on a winning formula, have the somewhat easier task of focusing on Republicans’ foibles. In introducing Democratic candidate for auditor Mike Claytor at the Democratic convention, Gregg focused his comments on the problems Pence has had with the office, including former Auditor Dwayne Sawyer’s unexplained departure after three months on the job.

“That’s not good, friends. Our money’s at stake. And we really have no idea who’s watching our money. But I guess that’s what happens when one party has lopsided control of the Statehouse,” Gregg said.

There’s polling behind just about all messaging, but the true test of effectiveness will come at the ballot box in November.

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