INDIANAPOLIS – When I was a junior in college, I sat behind the cutest and smartest boy in my 300-level economics class. He didn’t know who I was, but I sure knew who he was. 

Whenever the professor called on Evan Bayh, all eyes were on him. He was clever and engaging without being a showoff. He had a way of convincing some of us that we were smart enough to catch on, too.

Fast-forward 37 years, and once again I found myself in a gaggle of people with all eyes on Evan. Only this time, it was to hear him say he was bowing out of the Indiana governor’s race – a race he really never entered.

For months, we’ve been waiting to know whether the former U.S. Senator would try to retake the job he first won at age 32, when he was the first Democrat in 20 years to be elected to the Indiana governor’s office and the youngest governor in the country. His flirtations were maddening, especially for Democrats dreaming of the Bayh glory days.

Back when Bayh was governor, both parties had vigor, and he courted enough Republicans to push through his signature legislation, including both education and welfare reform.

Now, Indiana Democrats just seem glum, diminished in influence and overshadowed by Republicans who have super-majorities in the state House and Senate and who control every Statehouse office but one.

Bayh released a statement Friday morning announcing his decision and acknowledging his indecision was standing in the way. “I hope that my decision will enable others to step forward …,” it said.

He then met individually with a swath of reporters, who were asking themselves if any other Indiana politician could garner that kind of coverage for quitting a race he’d never begun.

In my interview, he chided me for sending out a Tweet that called him a “flirt” for toying with affections of supporters. But he acknowledged the sentiment among hopeful Democrats who saw him as the party’s savior. “And it makes me feel bad,” he said.

Bayh is still estranged from some Democrats, who are mad at him for sitting on a nearly $10 million campaign war chest he accumulated before abruptly quitting his 2010 Senate re-election race.

But many are still enthralled. As one party loyalist pointed out, Bayh hasn’t run a TV ad in Indiana for over a decade, and he’s still the most popular Democrat in the state.

The reasons he gave for not running had nothing to do with winning. Had Bayh entered the governor’s race, he could have won, political observers say.

Instead, Bayh cited the polarization that has seeped from the national to state level. Any Republican lawmakers who would cross the aisle to work with him, he said, would be crucified in their next primary.

As a result, Bayh said, he couldn’t get anything done. “I didn’t just want to be a figurehead governor.” 

He didn’t mean to lead anyone on, he said.

“In some ways, there was a division between my heart and my head on this. My heart was in many ways saying yes, and it may have been why I equivocated for awhile.

“But my head ended up concluding this had to be about governing. This had to be about a realistic possibility of getting big things done.”

He left with a final note: He has no plans to run for another office.

Well, he added, at least none in the immediate future. 

Maureen Hayden covers the state for the CNHI newspapers. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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