Posted on Fri, May. 02, 2008
last updated: May 02, 2008 07:33:32 PM
KOKOMO, Ind. — The last time Karen Rhodes saw a presidential candidate come through town, it was Harry Truman giving 'em hell from the back of his train on a 1948 whistle-stop tour.
So it was a thrill for her when Hillary Clinton rolled in this week to do a little of the same. Rhodes and hundreds of neighbors lined up outside the high school gym, crowding into the home of the Kokomo Wildkats and cheering perhaps as much for their own moment in the political sun as for the candidate on the stage.
Indiana is one of two states to vote next Tuesday — along with North Carolina — and that's drawing the spotlight to a state that hasn't played a role in a Democratic presidential primary since 1968 and has been in play in a general election maybe once since Truman rolled through.
All of which makes it unfamiliar political territory to candidates and a bit of a mystery to the rest of the country.
"We're not really the same as Ohio or Illinois," said Margaret Ferguson, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. "We're a very conservative state."
Indiana hasn't gone for a Democratic presidential candidate in the fall since it went along with the Lyndon Johnson landslide in 1964. Before that, you have to go back to 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt carried the state over Alf Landon.
It's a small-town state with small-town values. Even with the highest number of factory jobs per capita of any state, many of Indiana's jobs are in towns such as Kokomo, not in big cities.
License plates bear the words "In God We Trust" in letters almost as big as the license numbers. The capital city's biggest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, boasts a front-page motto taken from the Bible and maintained since Dan Quayle's family owned it: "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty."
Polls find the competition for the Democratic presidential primary close between New York Sen. Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who could lose in a state bordering his home for the first time.
Each can count on different parts of the state.
Obama can depend on a strong vote in the "region," cities such as Gary and Hammond that are close to Chicago, heavily African-American and more attuned to Chicago than to Indiana.
He also should win the 7th congressional district in and around Indianapolis, said Joe McDowell, a political scientist at Indiana State University.
Clinton should win across southern Indiana, a part of the state that's more Kentucky than Midwest.
"Everything else is up for grabs," McDowell said. "It looks like Clinton is making some good inroads from Indy up to Kokomo, over to Lafayette and up to South Bend. She has a constituency with an older population, non-college-educated, rural and small town. She's seen as the less dangerous candidate, more traditional."
Indeed, while the economy and factory jobs dominate talk among Indiana Democrats, their personal appraisals of the two candidates also influence their thinking.
In Indianapolis, for example, Obama supporters are drawn to his cool manner and promise of a new style of politics as much as to his proposals. And they dismiss the recent complaints about his relationship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Will Nichols, an auto-plant supervisor from Indianapolis, worries about what he'll do when his factory shuts down as scheduled in two years.
He likes Obama and thinks the brouhaha over Wright was overblown, even though he doesn't agree with what Wright said. "He can't control what the guy says," Nichols said.
Also, he simply doesn't like Clinton. "I really don't like the tone of her campaign," he said.
Roger Roe, a symphony oboe player from Indianapolis, said he was drawn to Obama because he said the senator is positive and inspirational. "He'd get us out of Iraq as quickly as possible, change the No Child Left Behind law, and he's for civil unions for same-sex couples," Roe said.
In a place such as Kokomo, however, Obama faces skeptical working-class Democrats, and Clinton finds friends such as Steve Shallenberger, an electrician and union official from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The economy tops his list of concerns. Union electricians have work, thanks to the construction of a football stadium and non-union auto plants moving into the state. But the local Delphi plant cut pay for unskilled production workers from $28 an hour to $14, and locals are anxious.
Shallenberger likes Clinton. "She's in touch with working people," he said. "I feel comfortable with her.
But not Obama. "I'm worried about his pastor," Shallenberger said. "If that's the background he comes from, that worries me."
Shonda Blount, a production worker at the General Motors plant in Marion, is very worried about her job.
"We're on the closing list for 2010," she said. "We don't know what to do; we don't know if we'll get transferred to another plant or just be out of work."
She likes Clinton, too. "She says she can keep the jobs here," Blount said.
She doesn't like Obama because of his religious ties — to a father who was Muslim and to a Christian pastor who rants against the United States and white people.
"It tells me what kind of person he is," she said.
It's the kind of skepticism that has even some Obama supporters thinking that Indiana might be a tough sell for the Illinois senator.
"Hillary connects to people here," said Mark GiaQuinta, a prominent Democrat from Fort Wayne who supports Obama. "The Clintons have the momentum now. I shouldn't say it, but I think she's going to win Indiana."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008