Politics & Government

In Indiana, Obama trails Clinton but hopes for a Hollywood ending

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The "Little 500" isn't listed on Barack Obama's public schedule, but he's hoping to squeeze in a cameo appearance Friday as his campaign rolls through Indiana on a four-day bus tour.

The symbolism attached to this annual bicycle event at Indiana University, which raises money for working students, is almost too good for the unexpected front-runner to pass up. It was immortalized in the 1979 coming-of-age movie "Breaking Away," in which an underdog team with a young, inspiring leader named Dave Stoller takes on the university elite and wins.

"Dave Stoller? That would be Barack for sure," said Brad Titzer, 31, owner of Revolution Bike and Bean, a cycle and coffee shop at the edge of campus.

Still, Titzer isn't sure which Democrat he'll support.

"I like Barack," he said. "But I like Hillary's foreign-policy experience better."

Hillary Clinton remains ahead of Obama in the Hoosier state for the Democratic presidential nomination by as much as nine points, according to recent polling compiled by RealClearPolitics.

But Obama is making a serious push in Indiana in the run-up to the May 6 primary. He's counting on his national front-runner status, his support from respected Indiana names such as former congressmen and 9/11 commissioners Lee Hamilton and Tim Roemer, and his fans in Indiana's black population centers and college towns to help him close in.

So far, the athlete-underdog-as-hero theme has been big.

At Obama's first event late Wednesday night in South Bend, near Notre Dame, Roemer made sure to emphasize Obama's basketball skills in his introduction. Roemer then appealed to the crowd to think of the movie "Hoosiers" as an analogy for Obama's primary bid against Clinton: "They beat the giant. They beat the big team."

Obama told the crowd that he knows it's difficult to overcome racial, religious and other divisions, but that he thinks he's the candidate best poised to address domestic struggles and the Iraq war.

"I want your voices in my ear as president," he said.

Indiana's population is 86 percent white, and its Midwest manufacturing strains help define where voters are coming from.

To win or come close, Obama must close the deal with more white, male voters such as Randy Przybysz, a St. Joseph county councilman and salesman who is leaning toward Obama but remains undecided. Przybysz likes both Democrats' stances on issues. He likes Obama because of his "dynamic personality" but admires Clinton because "she's tough."

Campaigning in Gary on Thursday, Obama focused on the economy before heading to Lafayette, near Purdue University. On Friday he has stops planned for Columbus and Terre Haute, home to Indiana State University.

But with downtime in between, his staff did the advance work for a stop in Bloomington to coincide with the women's Little 500 race. On Saturday, when the men race, Obama is scheduled to be in Muncie, home to Ball State University.

Even as both Democrats pour more energy into Pennsylvania's April 22 contest, both also consider Indiana — which has a Republican governor and voted heavily for President Bush in the past two elections — important enough to be diverting there for days at a time. Clinton is to return to Indiana on Saturday, and her husband has been campaigning here this week.

In Bloomington, some students said a drop-by during Little 500 events would be a savvy move by Obama.

"The race is huge and it's a big week," said Abby Travis, 18, an Obama supporter. Travis sees Obama as an inspirational underdog figure.

"Just look at him," she said. "He's half black. He's got this unconventional past. He's not what you think of when you think of the conventional candidate."

Her boyfriend, Zach Trogdan, a cyclist who's still considering his voting options, looks at Obama's Harvard law training and political career and disagrees.

"I don't think there's an underdog thing," he said.

Other students said that even in this historic election year, voting isn't a priority.

"I don't get involved in politics," said Kirk Weesner, 21, who'll watch the women's race and will compete in the men's on Saturday, riding for his fraternity's team. He said he won't be voting next month.

The real-life cyclist who served as the inspiration for the fictional Stoller character is 68 now and a retired biology teacher living in Indianapolis. David Blase said he'll attend this year's women's race and men's race. But he doesn't expect to vote for Obama and doubts seeing him would change his mind.

"I have to admit he presents a wonderful image," Blase said. Still, "I'm pretty much Republican and, more than that, conservative. So I'm not terribly thrilled about any of the candidates."