I grew up in the Deep South, and as a child loved the Uncle Remus stories. Still do -- they rival Aesop in their trenchant observation of human foibles.

Along with the Briar Patch, my favorite was the Tar Baby. For you culturally deprived Northerners, the story involves Br'er Fox's scheme to trap Br'er Rabbit by setting a Tar Baby alongside the road. When Br'er Rabbit happens by, he becomes offended that the Tar Baby will not return his greeting, and smacks the rude critter, of course getting stuck to him in the process.

With stubborn zeal, he flails at the Tar Baby until all four extremeties are hopelessly ensnared.As in all the Uncle Remus stories, Br'er Rabbit somehow narrowly escapes with his life, presumably wiser.

Our local Democrats, in contrast, have failed to learn from such experiences. John Fernandez smacked the I-69 Tar Baby, right on the lips. He has suffered humiliating, career-destroying defeat as a result, losing not only Monroe County but even his own precinct in his bid for Secretary of State. (Any truth to the rumor that he and Wifey are quietly relocating to her hometown of Grosse Pointe, MI?)

Vi Simpson observed this whole cautionary tale, at close range. So what does she do? She marches right up and smacks the Tar Baby herself.

Vi Simpson was probably not electable in her best-case scenario, as a youngish female from Bloomington in an era of Bush war hysteria. She inherits the baggage of O'Bannon, a senile old coot who has led Indiana to the brink of ruin, not least with his plans to bankrupt the state with this monstrous highway.If she or any Democrat were to have a chance of winning the race for Governor, they would have to distance themselves from O'Bannon, hold tight to the ironclad support of progressives, and stir extraordinary, enthusiastic voter turnout.

But Vi has done exactly what Fernandez did -- she has cut herself off from her local constituency by betraying us on the issue that matters most. She may be getting a bunch of money from the land speculators and the rest of the INDOT crowd, but she is dead in the water with the electorate she needs. So alienated are formerly devout Democrats that many are seriously considering Republican frontrunner Mitch Daniels as an alternative.

Daniels made one thing crystal clear in his recent remarks in Greene Co. and Bloomington -- the routing of I-69 is a completely open question, and O'Bannon's foolish new terrain pork barrel is subject to reversal by the next Governor. In Hendricksville, with Greene County officials who favor the highway standing right there, he told this objective reporter: "When you're talking about the most expensive, most environmentally destructive route, you've got a very tough burden of proof to convince me it's the right route."

Now the question is whether Joe Andrew will wake up and smell the coffee. He has attempted to mollify the Evansville and other developers with a hands-tied posture -- as if O'Bannon's decision were irreversibly enscribed on tablets from Mt Sinai. Daniels has blown the lid off that stratagem.

Andrew can either distinguish himself from Vi on this question, or he can join her at the Tar Baby -- which at this point would begin more to resemble the La Brea Tar Pits.

Cathy Crosson is a professor at the Indiana University School of Law.