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Outsider vibe drives 'Draft Mellencamp' Facebook group

By Thom Patterson, CNN
John Mellencamp, who campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, won't say whether he's interested in running for Senate.
John Mellencamp, who campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, won't say whether he's interested in running for Senate.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Facebook page to draft John Mellencamp for Senate wins 7,000 members in 16 days
  • Organizer excited by movement's momentum; group plans statewide rallies
  • Mellencamp's longtime publicist says it's not a "crazy idea"
  • Indiana Democratic officials say Mellencamp can't run unless he declares

(CNN) -- To hear leaders of the "Draft John Mellencamp for Senate!" Facebook group tell it, this is a story about "insider" politicians, "street-level voters" and whether a likeable rock star with strong grass-roots appeal will run for the U.S. Senate.

The "movement," as the group calls it, was born less than three weeks ago with Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh's stunning announcement he would not not run for re-election. The next morning, Gabrial Canada, 21, was at home watching cable news reports about a Facebook page aimed at bringing Mellencamp, 58, into the race.

"After I saw that I went right to the Facebook group," Canada said Wednesday from his home in Indianapolis. "By then it had only been a matter of hours and it had already gotten a thousand members. It was incredibly exciting to see that catching hold." He contacted the group's founder and from then on he was hooked. So far, the group has garnered more than 7,000 members in 16 days.

"There's all this faux populism out there -- people who get paid millions of dollars to generate campaigns that look like they're supporting the people," said Canada, a self-described community ambassador for a local PBS TV station. "When you have the prospect of somebody as genuine as Mellencamp campaigning as someone people can relate to, it's unique, it's something you can't replace."

But there's another turn in this twisted tale. Because Bayh waited until February 15 to announce his decision, he essentially forced the party to choose its candidate instead of leaving it up to voters in the state's May 4 primary.

According to party rules, Indiana's 32-member Democratic Central Committee will vote by secret ballot to decide who will run. The committee chairman said members won't consider anyone who hasn't officially declared themselves a candidate.

"I don't think [Mellencamp's] going to declare," said chairman Dan Parker.

For his part, Mellencamp continues to issue nothing but a terse "no comment," through a spokesman.

The idea that Indiana Democrats would not hold a primary to choose their Senate candidate felt like a "punch in the face" said Canada. It's "anti-democratic."

"I don't think that the decisions of insiders are necessarily reflective of the popular political will," he said. Through meetup.com, Canada is organizing the first of a statewide series of planned rallies set for Friday at a 1950s-era hangout on Indianapolis' folksy South Side.

At Edwards Drive-In, home of the "Jumbo Tenderloin" and 99-cent root beer floats, Canada hopes to attract a dozen Mellencamp supporters, whom he'll ask to sign a petition to be submitted to Indiana newspaper editors. In the coming days, Canada plans a much larger rally in the Democratic stronghold of Bloomington -- right in the small-town rocker's own backyard.

He's a businessman, like a politician he knows it doesn't hurt him to have people talking about it.
--Indianapolis Star reporter Matthew Tully, on John Mellencamp's noncommital stance on a Senate run
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The fact that his Facebook campaign comes during an election cycle influenced by a larger, grass-roots Tea Party movement -- with polar opposite political views -- isn't lost on the Facebook page founder John Patterson. "The end result of moving out the status quo in favor of new faces is probably the same goal," he said with a laugh.

The Draft Mellencamp campaign is racing against a deadline. The state's Democratic committee will hold its vote as early as May 15, and any candidate, including Mellencamp, must officially declare 72 hours prior, according to Parker -- that would be noon May 12.

As for Mellencamp himself, he's "never expressed overt interest in running for anything," said the musician's longtime publicist, Bob Merlis, by phone from his California office.

Much has been written in the past few weeks about Mellencamp's 2008 campaign performances for presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as his years of public support for family farmers and his opposition to the Iraq war.

"I don't think it's a crazy idea," Merlis said about the draft campaign. "I mean that from the point of view of someone who knows him and knows his intellect and knows that he is an aware person. But he's not a very politicked person -- meaning he is not prone to pull his punches."

Opinion: Senator Mellencamp? Crazy talk

Pundits and party officials say they're stymied by this question: Instead of, "No comment," why doesn't Mellencamp just say, "No thank you?" Why doesn't he declare that he's just not interested to reduce political confusion and streamline the nomination process?

"I've said something along the same lines," said Merlis.

Indianapolis Star political columnist Matthew Tully, who has been covering Hoosier politics since 1992, offered his theory: "Why not just allow the buzz to go out there? He's a businessman, like a politician he knows it doesn't hurt him to have people talking about it. So it is kind of interesting that he hasn't officially said anything either way. My guess is he's just enjoying the moment."

However unlikely, a Mellencamp campaign could be formidable, said pundits, despite Indiana's strong Republican establishment. "A lot of Hoosiers think that he speaks for them," said Brian Howey of the daily online brief Howey Politics Indiana. "He's pretty well tapped into the Indiana soul."

In the short time since Bayh's announcement, two Democrats who were considering running have decided not to. Most of the Democratic establishment, said Tully, has coalesced strongly around moderate Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a former county sheriff.

"I was with a friend of Mellencamp's in Bloomington last week," said Howey. "His comment was, 'There's no way John could last in the U.S. Senate. It would be absolutely stifling for him. He wouldn't be able to say exactly what's on his mind.'"

"It's one thing to be [ex-Saturday Night Live comedian and Minnesota Sen.] Al Franken, Harvard grad, who has some seriousness about him -- not that Mellencamp doesn't -- I'm just not sure the Senate's an appropriate forum for him."

Apparently, the Senate was becoming unpalatable for Bayh, who announced he was leaving because an overly partisan "Congress is not operating as it should." "The people's business is not getting done," he said.

Patterson, the Facebook page founder, blames political "insiders" for congressional gridlock and "all the obstruction to progress we're having right now."

He sees the Internet as a way to break what he called an insiders' stranglehold on the nomination process. "We need someone like Mellencamp, who's much more tuned to street-level voters."