Salena Zito

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.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.