Hoosiers want 'a candidate we can leave the house keys with'

The farmer squats down in last year's corn field and crumbles dirt between his fingers. ''I lean Republican,'' he says after a few moments of hesitation. It's clear he doesn't want to talk politics.

Indiana is more diverse than this farmer might indicate. But he is voicing some of the reserve that runs deep here. There is pride, practicality, and a fierce independence - qualities that typify a Hoosier.

No one yet has explained to everyone's satisfaction the origin of the word Indiana residents call themselves. But one thing is certain: Walter F. Mondale, Sen. Gary Hart, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are not Hoosiers. And if they expect to do well in Indiana's May 8 primary, they need to know something about how Hoosiers think.

''This is middle America par excellence,'' says Brian S. Vargus, a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Hoosiers want a candidate with whom they can leave the house keys, go on vacation, and return to find everything there, he says.

''This is a state that is not terribly interested in activism,'' says Marjorie Hershey, director of undergraduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Indiana traditionally has avoided federally funded projects, because Hoosiers don't like to be dictated to by Washington, D.C., observers say. In some ways the state clings to a rural mind-set even though it has long since moved beyond its farm heritage.

For example: Indiana has become the nation's No. 1 steel producer and has a strong manufacturing base in automobile parts. Two-thirds of its population is urban. Blacks make up more than 70 percent of Gary's population. White-collar professionals and even ''Yuppies'' live in Indianapolis and the college towns.

And politically, Indiana is far from uniform. It is a strong two-party state, says David Caputo, head of the political science department at Purdue University. The Republicans have a strong, well-disciplined organization, he says. The governor is Republican, as are both Indiana's US senators. The GOP controls the state legislature, too.

But Democrats are strong in the large cities sprinkled around northern and central Indiana, he says. Their problem is that they are loosely organized and factionalized. ''First, you've got to find 'em, then you've got to pull 'em together,'' Professor Caputo says.

It's not an easy task when the northwest corner of the state is liberal, labor-oriented, and heavily black, while the southern part of the state contains conservative Southern Democrats.

Nevertheless, there are hints of change.

The Republican organization, after gerrymandering congressional districts in 1981 to convert a 6 to 5 Democratic majority in the US House into a 7 to 3 Republican edge, could only get a 5 to 5 split in the 1982 elections, Professor Vargus says.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have begun to build a semblance of an organization in Indianapolis, he adds.

John Livengood, chairman of the Marion County Democratic Party, says a combination of a vulnerable Republican governor and a summer registration drive may give Democrats a dramatic upset in this traditionally GOP county.

In the Democratic presidential primary, he says he would not be surprised to see the six convention delegates in the 10th District here split evenly between the three candidates.

''I think you'll see (Hart) do better than in other industrial states,'' he says.

But other political observers expect Mr. Mondale to win because of organized labor in the cities.

Hoosiers don't always vote Republican. From 1962 to 1976, both Indiana senators were liberal Democrats.

Still, the eventual Democratic nominee is likely to have an uphill battle for this state in November.

''Ronald Reagan was tailor-made for Indiana,'' Vargus says. ''Horatio Alger, the American dream, apple pie - the whole bit, that's Indiana culture.''

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