Indiana: Clinton's next big test

Obama and Clinton are in a tight race heading into the May 6 contest.

john gress/reuters
Fun on the trail: Hillary Rodham Clinton was campaigning in Jeffersonville, Ind., Thursday.
jason reed/reuters
Fun on the trail: Barack Obama was teaching his daughter, Sasha, to rollerskate in Lafayette, Ind., Saturday.
SOURCE: US Census Bureau/AP

In Indiana – a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide – Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are logging dizzying itineraries as they attempt to convince Hoosiers that they have the solutions to the problems on everyone's minds: gasoline prices and jobs.

The latest controversy with Senator Obama's former pastor registered among some voters, and issues of race and class are an important backdrop, but mostly, this is a pocketbook election, say analysts.

"We've been hit very hard here in Indiana in terms of manufacturing jobs and traditional blue-collar jobs," says Tom New, a Democratic strategist in the state. He notes that while Indiana shares many economic problems with other Rust Belt states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, it may turn out to be a more even match between Senator Clinton and Obama. "There's a lot of economic unrest in Indiana, and I think that plays to Senator Clinton's advantage, but I do think people are hungry for change, and that's been Obama's theme."

So far, most polls have given Clinton a slight edge, though a few recent ones have the two Democrats in a virtual tie.

Both candidates have been stressing middle-class concerns, including outsourced jobs, soaring prices at the pump, home foreclosures, and college debt. Clinton, however, has focused more on specific, detailed proposals, while Obama emphasizes bigger-picture concerns and long-term fixes.

That may be one reason, say experts, Clinton's message seems to resonate more with working-class voters.

"He needs to make a more compelling case to blue-collar workers of what he can do for them," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "He gives a good speech about hope and idealism, but they want to know what he's going to do in terms of bread and butter issues that will help them."

In Indiana, where about one-third of the voters come from small towns and rural areas, Obama sometimes struggles against a perception of elitism from voters unmoved by his soaring rhetoric. "I couldn't warm up to Obama. I felt like he was talking over my head instead of to me," says Shirley Goodman, a loan officer from Terre Haute, at a Clinton rally. "She can reach the average person better than he can."

"She's willing to go the extra yard to stop jobs from going overseas," agrees Debbie Phelps, an educational assistant in Terre Haute, noting that her husband was laid off from his tool-and-dye job of 23 years when the company went to another country, and then laid off again when Pfizer left town. He gets half the pay at his current job. "At our age, it's like starting all over," she says.

Obama has been working to combat that perception of elitism and has also sought to counter Clinton's argument that he can't connect with the white working-class voters who will be crucial in November. Last week he moved away from his famous huge rallies and big speeches, in favor of smaller, invitation-only events where he tried a conversational approach.

"I want to spend more time listening than talking," he told about 75 farmers and rural families at an event at the Dairy Beef Club at South Bend's fairgrounds, where he emphasized his own Midwestern roots.

My grandparents are from a small town in Kansas," he reminded people. "I grew up with these values."

He piqued the interest of at least a few listeners. "I think Obama has the lower-class people in mind more because he's been raised different," says Ruby an older woman at the South Bend event who was raised on a farm and still grows berries to sell. She was impressed, she says, by the fact that he did community work in Chicago after law school instead of going to work at a big firm. "I don't know if [Clinton] still has that small-town feel."

Indiana is an unusual state to be receiving so much attention – more than 80 campaign stops from Clinton family members alone in recent weeks. In presidential elections, it's solidly red, despite residents' willingness to vote for Democrats at the local level.

Because of its largely white, older, rural population, it's also a natural state to go for Clinton. The more urban centers of northwest Indiana and Indianapolis, however, are presumably Obama territory, and he may get a boost from Indiana's proximity to his home state of Illinois.

Social conservatism also runs deep here, says Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University's Indianapolis campus. "Part of that is, 'We don't like things to change too fast….' Obama's theme of change has not necessarily ignited as much fire out there as it has in some other areas."

On economic issues, nowhere is the difference in the candidates' approach more apparent than on the question of a gas-tax holiday. Experts have panned the proposal as an expensive move that would do little to provide real relief for families or achieve long-term progress on fuel prices.

Clinton is trying to tap into the concern over high gasoline taxes with her support of the tax holiday, making a calculated gamble that voters want short-term savings, now.

Obama has criticized the proposal as a gimmick and political pandering. He says the gasoline tax suspension would not only be costly, but would save families only $25 or $30, "about half a tank of gas." The idea, he says in an Indiana TV ad, is "typical of how Washington works."

It's unclear, say experts, which message will connect more with Indiana voters. On the one hand, former Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon used a similar tactic, suspending the state's gasoline tax, in 2000 – a move widely credited with helping him win reelection. But Hoosiers may also have learned from that, and many seem to appreciate that Obama wants longer-term solutions.

"That's one area where Obama's right," says Mike Lenyo, a retired mechanic and truck driver at a Studebaker show in South Bend, though he says he still plans to vote for Clinton.

When Joe Andrew, an Indiana superdelegate and former Clinton supporter, announced he was switching to Obama last week, the two reasons he cited were Obama's opposition to the gas-tax holiday and his handling of the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

Indeed, even amid the perception last week that Obama's campaign was faltering, following a loss in Pennsylvania and attention on his fallout with Mr. Wright, Obama continued to rack up superdelegates. Some experts now say it's uncertain whether even a solid Clinton victory in Indiana – which all agree she must win – would be enough to propel her to the nomination.

As with other states, Democratic delegates are allotted proportionally, and unless the party agrees to Clinton's request to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates, she would still trail in the overall delegate count.

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