WASHINGTON -- Jon Jennings has friends from his days in the Clinton White House, friends in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, friends in Hollywood, and -- maybe the most important asset to a candidate running for Congress in basketball-crazy Indiana -- friends who are Boston Celtics legends.
K. C. Jones, the Celtics coach who hired Jennings as a scout and assistant in 1991, has traveled to Indiana to lend his support. Hall of Famer Larry Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers, is hosting a fund-raiser for Jennings in Indianapolis next month.
Former coach Red Auerbach hosted a Washington party for Jennings contributors in June. "I like him. He knew the game," Auerbach said of Jennings, who was with the team until 1997.
Now connections, money, and political ambition are propelling Jennings to the top of the Democratic Party's list of hot prospects in 2004 House races. A native of Indiana who got hooked on Washington as a White House fellow in the late 1990s, Jennings moved from Massachusetts to Evansville, Ind., last year. He immediately set his sights on challenging Representative John Hostettler, a conservative Republican who has served five terms in the "Bloody Eighth" district, so named because of a history of close and hard-fought contests.
"We see this race as a great opportunity to take that seat in 2004," said Angela Belden, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which, she said, has pledged "to do whatever we can to be helpful to Jon."
Last week, Jennings was in Washington, asking labor officials and party leaders to put their faith and funds in him, an untested candidate who intends to run as a fiscal conservative and community builder and to focus on bringing jobs and federal projects into the district.
"I think we are headed in the wrong direction," said Jennings, who added that he will oppose abortion and gun control in his campaign against Hostettler, a member of Congress who enjoys strong grass-roots support from evangelical Christians and social conservatives.
Other Democratic hopefuls in the Eighth District bowed out of the race this month after Jennings reported collecting $200,000 since January and spending $100,000 to organize his campaign.
By contrast, Hostettler has collected about $32,000 this year and is not accepting money from political action committees.
"If you look at Mr. Jennings's money, 76 percent of it has come from Massachusetts and 6 percent is from Indiana," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "When it gets down to the ground game, it's going to be really hard for Massachusetts people to go door-to-door for Jennings, and Mr. Hostettler has a very loyal following and a tremendous grass-roots operation."
Last month, two of Boston's top Democratic fund-raisers, Steve Grossman and Alan Solomont, coordinated a local event that raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for Jennings's campaign.
Contributors with Massachusetts connections included former governor Michael S. Dukakis, Fidelity Investment vice chairman Peter Lynch, philanthropist Bobby Sager, former Celtics star Bob Cousy, and Jane Garvey, who headed Logan Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"I don't think it's a question of where your money comes from. The more important point is whether the people who know you best believe in you and support you," said Grossman, who added that he had not been aware of Jennings's position on abortion and disagreed with it.
To Indiana Democrats who are eager to oust Hostettler, Jennings's key appeal was his ability to raise big money outside southwestern Indiana, with its mixture of modest family farms and blue-collar communities like Terre Haute and Evansville.
David Bohmer, the party chairman in Putnam County, said local Democrats overlooked Jennings's newcomer status and focused on the personal resources that allow him to campaign full time; the contacts in Washington, including those from his stint as former attorney general Janet Reno's liaison to Congress; and the basketball -- both in Boston and in Bloomington, where as an Indiana University student Jennings was an assistant to coach Bobby Knight.
"If there's a state in the country where those connections help, it's Indiana, where people are fanatical about basketball," Bohmer said. "Getting Larry Bird to do a radio spot would be a wonderful benefit."
That asset will be outweighed by larger liabilities, according to Indiana Republican Party chairman Jim Kittle, who said Jennings will be perceived as a carpetbagger from Massachusetts, a political opportunist who never lived in the Eighth District, and a friend of liberal Democrats and Hollywood personalities. Jennings has received contributions from actress Mary Steenburgen and director William Friedkin.
"I'm not sure Teddy Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, and Hillary Clinton will play very well in southern Indiana," Kittle said.
Jennings, 41, said he is proud of his time in the Clinton White House, where he served in the Office of Cabinet Affairs and then worked on the president's race initiative. For him, it was a natural extension of Team Harmony, a Boston foundation that he and the late Celtics player Reggie Lewis created in 1993 to bring young people together at the Boston Garden to foster racial understanding. Later, Leonard P. Zakim, then regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, stepped in to help Jennings organize the annual event.
"Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno are not running for Congress in this district; I've got to win this on my own," Jennings said, adding that he wouldn't mind if Bill Clinton came into the district.
In 2000, President Bush soundly defeated Al Gore in the Eighth District, and Republican leaders expect the president could help elect GOP candidates throughout Indiana next November. In Hostettler's last election, Vice President Dick Cheney held a fund-raiser for him.
But Hostettler, who did not respond to requests for an interview, may not receive special favors from the White House this time.
Hostettler was one of six Republicans who voted against the resolution last year authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and he recently succeeded in amending a spending bill to bar any federal funds from enforcing court orders against the Ten Commandments and the Pledge of Allegiance.