INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Sen. Evan Bayh is going to be looking for work soon. Indiana Democrats are looking for a solid candidate for governor in 2012.
Bayh's decision not to seek re-election to the Senate has sparked conjecture about whether a reunion could be in the making, bringing the state's most popular Democrat back home to run for a third term as governor.
During last Monday's retirement announcement, Bayh declined to rule out seeking public office again but said a third run at the Statehouse wasn't on his mind just then. He said it was time for him to "contribute to society in another way," either by creating jobs with a business, leading a college or university or running a charity.
But he described himself as an executive at heart -- a role more suited to a state's chief executive than a member of Congress.
"I love working for the people of Indiana, I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress," he said.
Political observer Ed Feigenbaum says the fact that Bayh spoke in the present tense could signal that he will run for governor again. State Democrats hope he's right.
"I can tell you there will be a lot of Democrats who will be encouraging him when they get a chance to see him and talk to him," said former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg. "He is still the modern-day Moses of the Indiana Democratic Party. Nobody can energize the Democratic Party, nobody can attract moderate Republicans and independents, like Evan Bayh."
Bayh wouldn't be the first former governor to reclaim his old office.
James Rhodes won election as Ohio governor in 1962 and 1966, was out of office for four years, then was elected again in 1974 and 1978.
Mills Godwin Jr. served as a Democratic governor of Virginia from 1966 to 1970 and served another four years as a Republican from 1974 to 1978.
But going home again can be fraught with pitfalls, especially for someone like Bayh, a centrist Democrat who ended his second term as governor in 1997 with a huge budget surplus and an approval rating near 80 percent.
"If you left on the mountain top, the odds are you won't be as successful the second time around," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Sabato said people remember governors and presidents well if they served during good economic times, "and if there are bad times we associate them with the pain and suffering."
That's what happened to Rhodes and Godwin.
Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said Rhodes built up state parks and increased highway construction projects during his first two terms, largely by issuing bonds. Those debts, however, caught up with him during his second two terms, when the economy was struggling.
"I think that probably tarnished his legacy," Beck said.
Likewise, Sabato said Godwin's first term in Virginia was viewed as a success, largely because the economy was booming. But it tanked during his second term, and Godwin wasn't able to recapture the luster of his first four years.
"There was no corruption, but it was a time of great austerity and unhappiness," Sabato said.
Bayh would inherit a state in vastly different shape than the one he left in 1997. The booming economy of the late 1990s that allowed him to leave office with a $1.6 billion surplus and reputation for not raising taxes is no more. State revenues have fallen millions short of even the worst projections, prompting Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to order hiring and salary freezes and millions in cuts to education. A $1.3 billion surplus could be gone by the time the two-year budget cycle ends in June 2011.
Bayh also would find one of his creations has taken on a very different form. Under his watch, several agencies merged to create a sprawling bureaucracy called the Family and Social Services Administration. The agency has been besieged with problems over the years, most recently for attempts to privatize some welfare intake functions.
Robert Dion, a professor of American politics at the University of Evansville, doubts Bayh would take that on, especially if he's tired of Washington.
"He could do it again, but I'm not necessarily sure that's where his heart lies," Dion said. "The payoff from running for governor would be to launch a national campaign from outside Washington. But I'm not sure that's his dream at this point. It seems like he's done all that before and it would almost be a step backward."
But Gregg, the former Indiana House Speaker, said Bayh could use another term as governor as a platform for a presidential bid -- something Bayh, twice considered as a vice presidential nominee, flirted with in 2008 but dropped, saying he couldn't compete in fundraising.
"The road to the White House is through the Statehouse," Gregg said.
Other Democrats who have said they might consider a run for governor in 2012 include Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and U.S. Rep. Baron Hill.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)