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This state's tough to piece together

Obama and Clinton tread carefully through its blend of college towns, rural enclaves and industrial centers.

April 25, 2008|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

BLOOMINGTON, IND. — Straddling a shifting voting base that defies conventional labels, Indiana's Democratic Party is a mash-up of political cultures that may prove difficult for Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to harness as they press for a definitive May 6 primary victory.

Veteran Indiana Democrats warn that the state's complicated voting mosaic raises the prospect of another hard-fought stalemate that could fail to conclusively transform the Democratic presidential race before the party's August convention in Denver.

"There are so many pieces to the Indiana puzzle they have to fit together," said Robin Winston, a veteran Democratic strategist in Indianapolis and a former state party chairman. "I don't see a stampede for either of them."

At stake are 72 delegates, a lucrative Midwestern prize that both camps covet as the defining edge to the end of a long, bruising presidential primary season. Obama's forces aim for a big Indiana win that would force Clinton to reassess her determination to hold out through the convention; Clinton supporters hope for a solid showing that could finally bring in superdelegate holdouts.

Clinton is mining the small southern towns and the sprawling auto plants in the central part of the state to maintain her winning Pennsylvania base among older and white rural and blue-collar voters. Obama is depending on new waves of black voters in Indianapolis and Gary and on energized student shock troops in college towns like Bloomington and West Lafayette.

But as the long presidential primary campaign has gotten mired in a weekly slugfest, some nervous Indiana Democrats have become wild cards, unsure who they will support.

"I'm on gaffe patrol now," said Stephen Jay, an Indianapolis pulmonologist who is wavering between Obama and Clinton. As a professor of public health at Indiana University, Jay had long focused on healthcare, but now "electability" is paramount. "It's down to which of them makes the least mistakes."

As stressed voters grapple with their choices, Indiana's knotty demographic mix is forcing the candidates and their burgeoning teams of operatives and volunteers to make adjustments.

Between Gary's steel mill smokestacks to the north and the rolling terrain of southern Indiana farming towns overlooking the Ohio River, Obama and Clinton are making checkerboard moves to energize their bases while also making forays into enemy turf.

Obama spent much of midweek campaigning through the southern Indiana Democratic enclaves of Evansville and New Albany, river cities that may be his best hope in that region. Some of the Kentucky border towns were Ku Klux Klan strongholds as late as the 1920s, and despite decades of racial progress, political observers predict that some rural voters will quietly remain resistant to an African American presidential candidate.

"I expect you'll see some voting along racial lines," said James McDowell, a professor of political science at Indiana State University. "My guess is she'll do well in the southern counties."

The Democratic landscape is further complicated by the ability of Indiana independents and Republicans to cross over and vote in the May contest. Independent voters tilted to Obama in earlier primaries, giving him an edge in Southern states like Virginia and South Carolina. But those numbers could dwindle in Indiana if the controversy over Obama's "bitter" comment about small-town America lingers.

Still, despite a brace of polls this spring that showed Clinton in command across the state, several more recent surveys, including last week's Times Poll, gave Obama a slight edge. A SurveyUSA poll conducted between April 14 and 16 for Purdue University's Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics gave Obama a 5-point margin -- and also showed independents "tending to support" him.

"We're picking up some early vibes of support for Obama from independents," said Brian Howey, a newspaper columnist and blogger who also heads a statewide political survey operation. "The big question is how deep that goes."

Clinton swept working-class white women and scored well among white men and older voters in Pennsylvania. Hoping to repeat that performance, she is not shy about touting her heartland roots, studding her speeches with ample references to "Hoosiers" -- the nickname Indianans have been branded with for more than a century.

The New York senator, her ex-president husband and their daughter, Chelsea, have already made more than 50 visits to Indiana.

By contrast, Obama had been in the state 20 times before this week. But his ads began running on Indiana airwaves four weeks ago -- more than a week before Clinton responded with her own.

During Clinton's appearance Wednesday in Indianapolis, she previewed the populist-tinged persona that has helped buoy her to victory in Ohio and Pennsylvania. "This campaign here in Indiana is about jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs," she said under a giant fluttering U.S. flag in American Legion Mall, a tree-shaded city park.

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