Mar 26, 3:59 PM EDT

Ex-aide of retiring Indiana senator running to replace him

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- A well-connected Republican political operative is the first candidate to formally enter the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana.

Eric Holcomb, a former state Republican Party chairman, pointed during Thursday's announcement to his years as a top adviser to former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Coats. He resigned a day earlier as Coats' state chief of staff, a position he had held since 2013.

The 71-year-old Coats announced Tuesday he wouldn't seek re-election in 2016. It is far from clear how many other candidates will join the field for the Senate seat, though several Republicans and Democrats have stirred talk of also joining the race.

Holcomb, 46, is little known outside state political circles, but numerous former colleagues in the Daniels administration were among the couple hundred supporters gathered at a downtown Indianapolis hotel. Holcomb was a campaign manager and top governor's office aide to Daniels before being tapped to lead the state GOP in 2011.

Holcomb praised both Coats and Daniels during his speech, touting what he described as the state's fiscal and economic turnaround during Daniels' eight years in office, which ended in 2012.

"The reason why I'm jumping in because I think I can make a difference in Washington using the same approach that was proven to work here in the state of Indiana," he told reporters afterward.

Republican U.S. Reps. Todd Young, Susan Brooks and Marlin Stutzman, who finished second to Coats in the 2010 GOP primary, are among those who've said they are considering candidacies. Possible Democratic candidates include former Rep. Baron Hill, as well as former Sen. Evan Bayh, who didn't seek a third term in 2010.

The GOP would be favored to hang onto the seat, but Indiana recently has voted for Democrats, including in 2012. Joe Donnelly, then a congressman, won a Senate seat by defeating a tea party-backed Republican who had knocked off longtime GOP moderate Sen. Richard Lugar.

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