Primary fires up Hoosiers

Salena Zito
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Posted: May 04, 2008 12:00 AM
Primary fires up Hoosiers

RISING SUN, Ind. -- Like Ohio and Pennsylvania to the east, Indiana rarely is a deciding participant in a presidential primary. Yet the battleground for Democrats has moved to the Hoosier State.

"That has all changed now," said Judy O’Bannon, a former Indiana first lady. "When the contests were in neighboring Ohio, the stories coming out of there were, 'This is so exciting, and we get to be part of it.' Same thing in Pennsylvania.

"All the while, we are waiting here, thinking that it would end before anyone stepped foot in Indiana."

O’Bannon, wife of the late Gov. Frank O'Bannon, said that as Tuesday's primary approaches, the Democratic presidential campaign activity has reached such a frenzy that few people are paying attention to other races on the ballots.

The first contested gubernatorial primary race in Indiana since the early 1980s is a close one between Democrats Jim Schellinger and Jill Long Thompson to challenge Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is running unopposed in the primary.

"Nearly 50 percent of likely Democratic voters can’t decide between the two Democrats running in the primary for governor," O'Bannon said. "They’re too busy paying attention to Obama and Clinton."

O’Bannon, whose husband died while in office in 2003 from complications after a stroke, has endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama are locked in a tight battle for the Democratic nomination heading into primaries here and in North Carolina on Tuesday. Obama holds a lead in pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses, 1,488 to 1,334, according to an unofficial count by The Associated Press.

The rivals will split 115 pledged delegates at stake in North Carolina and 72 at stake in Indiana, with the winner in each getting the most. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to clinch the nomination.

Both candidates came here with decidedly different odds. Although Clinton has the wind at her back after successive primary wins in Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, she would have to win by numerically high margins in each of the nine remaining primaries to catch up with Obama in pledged delegates.

Obama is trying to improve his image with white, working-class voters, after denouncing his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who knocked him off message by making two public appearances last week and repeating angry comments about race and America. But Obama, too, needs help from superdelegates in order to secure the nomination.

People here are paying attention to both of the candidates and weighing their words. At the Persimmon Tree, an antique shop in this southern Indiana river town, proprietor Jim Moody was undecided -- until he heard about Obama denouncing Wright.

"That definitely affected me," said Moody, 56, a retired Purdue University administrator and registered independent. "It gives me more of a negative opinion of Barack Obama. It only confirms what Wright said about politicians having to say what they have to say."

Several doors down Main Street, at the Victorian & Lace Gift Shop, Charles White, 51, said he has no idea who will get his vote.

"I guess I have to decide by Tuesday," he said. "Right now, I just can’t make up my mind."

His sister, Esther Miller, 66, is firmly behind Clinton.

"She’s had experiences, both good and bad, that make her suited for the job," Miller said. "You know, I think people overlook that bad experiences shape your character and decision-making just as much as the good ones."

Purdue political science professor Bert Rockman said that although he sees similarities between Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, he doesn't expect the same results here.

"Clinton doesn't have quite the advantages in Indiana that she had in Ohio and Pennsylvania, mainly because of the younger demographics and fewer Catholics," Rockman said. "On the other hand, she has fewer big cities to contend with large black populations, and Indiana is probably more industrial than either Ohio or Pennsylvania."

Exit polls in the Pennsylvania primary showed six in 10 whites supporting Clinton, while Obama won support from about nine in 10 blacks, according to research conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International in 40 Pennsylvania precincts. Although Obama did well in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Clinton won 60 of the state's 67 counties.

In Portage, a northwest Indiana city with a view of Chicago's skyline from its Lake Michigan shoreline, Clinton held a public forum last week at Duneland Falls Steelworkers Union Hall. About 1,000 supporters and undecided voters packed the hall -- a stark contrast to the 17,000 students who jammed Indiana University at Bloomington’s Assembly Hall hours later to see Obama.

Kirk Roby, 48, of Merrillville stood beside fellow steelworker Brenda Boler, 35, after the event, waiting for the crowd to thin.

"I am leaving impressed," said Roby, noting Clinton's remarks on health care and a proposed gas tax holiday. "I am still leaning (toward) Obama, but who knows?"

Roby, who is black, said he was dismayed by Wright's recent speeches.

"Just does not seem right, on a whole lot of levels," he said.

Boler favors Clinton, saying real change would be having a woman president. But she, too, remains undecided.

Just before Obama's gathering at Assembly Hall, Kevin Okunade dashed across campus to make sure he wouldn't miss his hero’s appearance.

"I cannot believe that I am going to be able to see and hear a man who may become the president," he said.

Okunade, 21, a pre-med student from Memphis, looks forward to casting his first vote for president.

"I have connected with him since the first time I watched him speak on television," he said. "For me, it is as simple as that."

Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has become the forgotten man of Indiana's primary. The last time McCain was in a competitive race was Feb. 5, about the same time that Clinton began losing 10 races in a row -- losses that cost her the bulk of the pledged delegates and popular vote, and motivated many superdelegates to pledge to Obama.

Come November, however, McCain will be in the spotlight here with the Democrats' nominee. Because Indiana voters have not chosen a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964, this is considered a Republican-leaning state.

Yet, unless the Democratic Party can't unite behind a candidate, Rockman thinks Republicans might not be able to take Indiana for granted this time.

"McCain still hasn't resolved how much of a new-style conventional Republican he will be, against how much of a crossover candidate he will be," Rockman said. "He's going to lose somebody down the line."

A strong Democratic nominee who gains crossover votes could blunt a Republican win, he said.

Garnett Burns disagrees. A longtime Democrat in his 80s, Burns believes the state will go Republican in the fall.

"McCain is a good and honorable man," said Burns, who moved from Pittsburgh to Indiana in 1949. "Hoosiers are predominantly Republican. McCain is their kind of Republican. McCain will win."

But on Tuesday, Burns intends to vote for Clinton.

"I have been here forever, and I can’t remember Indiana ever even having a competitive Democratic statewide primary, let alone for president," he said. "No matter the end, this process has been good for the state, for the voters and for the Democratic Party."