South Bend, Ind.
A backlash against the GOP?
There is no sign of it in the Hoosier State in two key races that some view as an acid test of voter patience with Reaganomics: Indiana's Third District, and the state's 1982 Senate seat. Most polls here indicate that for now voters are more than willing to ''stay the course'' with GOP freshman Rep. John Hiler and incumbent GOP Sen. Richard Lugar.
Young Mr. Hiler, a strict supply-sider and one of the group dubbed ''Reagan's Robots'' by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., has just finished telling a group of businessmen how well President Reagan has done in fulfilling his campaign pledges on the economy, when he's thrown a few curve balls.
If everything is going so well, he is asked, why is consumer spending so slim and unemployment so rampant? Exuding optimism, Hiler assures his audience that ''a real Niagara waterfall of spending'' will ultimately lead the nation to recovery and that there is no better solution to unemployment than continuing sound economic policies.
''I firmly believe this is a proper course to take,'' he insists.
Meanwhile Senator Lugar, the former mayor of Indianapolis who has for the most part been a loyal supporter of Reagan policies during his first term in Washington, is sending Indiana voters much the same message. So confident of a win that he's spending some of his campaign time now at his Washington desk, he assures them in advertisements and speeches that he is ''a good man for tough times.'' Indiana voters must do their part in seeing that the nation continues forward rather than turning back to old economic policies, he says. Both Democratic and Republican polls give him a substantial lead over Floyd Fithian, his Democratic challenger.
''This is a straight-out referendum on Reagan economic policy,'' insists Mr. Fithian. ''Both Hiler and Lugar are hard-right people, philosophically wedded to Reaganomics.''
Fithian, a congressman for the last eight years from a traditionally Republican district which was wiped out in redistricting, has never held his Democratic Party label high - until now. Now he is so sure that the tide has turned against Republicans that he stresses his Democratic connection at every turn. His ads talk of ''unfair'' and ''failed'' Republican policies. He accused Senator Lugar of dodging the Republican Party label in his campaign literature.
''My polls show that the majority of Indiana voters believe that Republican policies are hurting them,'' says Fithian. ''If we can get this down to Democrats vs. Republicans this year, we'll win. . . . We're helping Lugar with his own party identification.''
The Lugar camp insists such criticism of their man is off target and is intended to whip up apathetic voters in Fithian's own party. GOP polls giving their candidate a 29-point lead indicate Lugar will get about 30 percent of the Democratic vote.
''Dick Lugar has a 99.9 percent recognition factor,'' insists his press secretary, Mark Helke. ''Everybody knows he's a Republican and he's not afraid of being identified with a party.''
Conservative Indiana is currently strongly Republican (''We'd probably elect Richard Nixon if he ran again,'' says one Fort Wayne labor leader). But it hasn't always been so. During the 1970s the state was represented by two Democratic senators. One, Vance Hartke, was ousted by Lugar in a 1976 election battle. Hiler, who had never served an elective office but had considerable dollar help in 1980 from New Right groups, managed to wrest his seat from 11 -term veteran Democratic Rep. John Brademas.
Fithian is practically alone in viewing this year's two races as a Reaganomics referendum, however. A fellow Democrat, Richard Bodine, who is challenging Hiler on Nov. 2, describes his race as a ''referendum on Hiler.''
''He is a rigid supply-sider, far to the right of the President - he is basically the campaign issue,'' says Mr. Bodine, a Mishawaka lawyer who has served for 16 years in the Indiana Legislature.
One of the big issues here and elsewhere this fall is the degree to which the Democrats in general and the unemployed in particular will vote.
Bodine clearly pins any hopes for victory on a strong election day turnout. As he shook hands on a recent tour through a radiator plant in Plymouth he reminded several workers not just to vote for him but above all to vote.