By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Something unusual appears to be developing in the Democratic presidential race in this state: a fair fight.
Wedged between Illinois, which is Sen. Barack Obama's home state, and Ohio, which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dominated on March 4, Indiana may be the one state remaining on the primary calendar where both candidates begin with a roughly equal chance of coming out ahead.
That fact alone makes it stand out from states such as Pennsylvania, where the playing field for the April 22 contest offers big advantages to Clinton (N.Y.), or the Oregon race a month later, which clearly tilts toward Obama.
In Indiana, Obama has a home-field advantage, while Clinton has the backing of the popular Sen. Evan Bayh and may have an edge on the kind of economic issues that are likely to dominate the discussion before the state's Democrats vote on May 6.
"If I had to pick -- and I'm not usually shy about saying who's going to win -- I couldn't tell you today," said Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat who represents Indiana's 2nd District and has not committed to either candidate. Others entrenched in Indiana politics put Clinton ahead, if only slightly.
The state's Democrats have reacted to their sudden relevance with enthusiasm -- thousands waited in the cold to see Clinton at several stops last week -- and the campaigns have responded by pouring resources into the state. Obama arrived here first, making an appearance March 15 in Plainfield, and the Clinton campaign is launching an attempt to limit his following on campuses with its own blitz on the numerous colleges and universities around the state. On Monday, Chelsea Clinton is set to help kick off the effort, appearing with her father, former president Bill Clinton, in South Bend before traveling to Bloomington.
Obama's bases of operation are likely to revolve around the Hoosier State's three major universities -- Notre Dame in the north and Indiana University and Purdue University farther south -- and build out into their respective host cities of South Bend, Bloomington and West Lafayette. The African American populations that spill over from Chicago are expected to favor Obama, as is Indianapolis, the state's largest city.
Former congressman and 9/11 Commission member Timothy J. Roemer is among a long list of Democrats slated to begin working the state aggressively for Obama.
While both campaigns grudgingly admit that the race here is competitive, each is seeking to portray the other as starting with a lead in pursuit of Indiana's 72 pledged delegates.
"We think he has some advantages starting out," Bayh said, referring to Obama, in an interview after spending the day traveling around the state with Clinton. "Twenty percent of Indiana households watch Chicago TV. The city of East Chicago is actually in Indiana."
As a result, Bayh said, a big swath of Indiana is already very familiar with Obama's message and the messenger himself.
But demographics and some of the state's similarities to Ohio, where Clinton won big on March 4, suggest that the senator from New York has a leg up. In southern Indiana, factory towns and areas around Evansville look like prime targets for her economic message aimed at blue-collar voters. Her allies also see strong potential for her in the Indianapolis suburbs.
Clinton already has a 5 to 2 lead among Indiana's 12 superdelegates (her supporters include Bayh, former Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew and Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker). The five Democrats who represent Indiana in the House -- several of them locked in tough races of their own -- remain uncommitted.
"Clinton would probably have an upper hand," said Jay Howser, who was campaign manager for Rep. Brad Ellsworth in 2006 and who is not aligned with either presidential campaign. "Although there's probably a heavy base of African American support for Obama in Indianapolis, it's a state that responds well to Clinton."
Clinton's alliance with Bayh, son of Indiana legend Birch Bayh, is already paying off. She hitched herself to the senator and former governor Thursday for a "Hoosiers for Hillary" tour that began in his birthplace, Terre Haute, a working-class and culturally conservative pocket of the state.
At every stop, the two talked about their long friendship, their seats next to each other on the Senate Armed Services Committee, their joint trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and their late-night political discussions. Recalling a recent conversation on the Senate floor, Bayh said: "I told her, I said, 'Many of our families are facing challenges.' . . . You know what she said to me? She said, 'Those are the people I want to fight for. And if you will stand with me, I will stand with you to build a better America.' "
The handicapping in other state contests also makes Indiana uniquely important. Its primary falls on the same day as voting in North Carolina, where Obama is widely considered to have the advantage. If Clinton wins Pennsylvania, as expected, she hopes to ride that momentum into the remaining contests, including those in Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Losses in Indiana and North Carolina would quickly blunt any claim to momentum for her.
The Obama campaign has been careful to play down the significance of any single contest now that it holds the lead in pledged delegates. But in a nod to Indiana's symbolic importance, the campaign has put it in the hands of Mitch Stewart, the former caucus director for Obama in Iowa.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said Friday: "Pennsylvania is an uphill battle for us. West Virginia is an uphill battle for us. Kentucky is an uphill battle for us." But he added: "Indiana is going to be a real fight."