Next Stop for the Dems: Indiana

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John Sommers II / EPA

Supporters of Barack Obama attend a rally for the candidate in Evansville, Indiana.

It's a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, so it's not surprising that Hoosiers are a bit taken aback by the attention suddenly showered on the upcoming May 6 Indiana primary. Until a few weeks ago, "a lot of people probably didn't even know where Indiana is," observes Patricia O'Connor, 58, an assistant school superintendent (and still undecided voter) here in South Bend, one of Indiana's few Democratic strongholds.

But as the competing campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton shift their focus from Pennsylvania to the next key state, Indiana Democrats are starting to relish the prospect of playing a rare key role in the primary process. Jenny Weiser, the executive director of the state's Democratic party, says she moved the May 4 Jefferson-Jackson dinner from an 800-seat ballroom at the downtown Indianapolis Marriott to the city's convention center, where she expects more than 2,500 people will attend. In the last week, more than 1,000 new donations have come through the committee's website, many from Hamilton County, the affluent, Republican-dominated northern Indianapolis suburb where Obama has been campaigning fiercely. Given the new donations, she says, "There's going to be a lot of switchover voters, and that's been bit of a hot topic."

Obama ended his Pennsylvania campaign in Evansville, in Indiana's southern tip, marking his fourth visit to the Hoosier State in the last month by declaring to some 7,500 people, "The challenges that we face are bigger than the smallness of our politics, and we know that this election is our chance to change it." Clinton, for her part, is swooping into Indianapolis today for a rally expected to center on a key issue here — the economy. It will mark her fifth day in Indiana in the last month. Add Bill and Chelsea, and the Clintons will have spent 18 days in Indiana in the same period.

Across Indiana in the coming days, Clinton's campaign will dispatch an "economic solutions team" composed of elected and appointed officials charged with promoting her proposals to review the North American Free Trade Agreement and stem the erosion of manufacturing jobs that once formed the backbone of this state's economy. In a conference call this morning, the head of Clinton's Indiana campaign, Robbie Mook, said Obama supporters had in recent days sent mailers to voters here attacking the New York Senator for being too cozy with big business and soft on trade. In response, Mook said, "The assertion that somehow she can't be trusted to protect jobs here is simply false."

One of the few polls surveying this state's electorate puts Obama slightly ahead of Clinton, 40% to 35%. He is expected to win Indianapolis, given its significant black population, and he may do well in the city's so-called collar counties, like Hamilton. After working hard to boost voter rolls at colleges and even high schools (17-year-olds can participate in Indiana's primaries, so long as they're 18 by the general election), Obama is also expected to win the state's college towns, as well as Indiana's Northwestern corner, partly because it falls within the media market of his hometown of Chicago. However, Obama faces significant hurdles in the rest of Indiana, whose blue-collar demographics and sensibilities closely resemble those of Ohio, which he lost by 10.5 percentage points.

Despite Clinton's derision of Obama as an elitist in recent days, her Indiana strategy has been hinged on winning the support of the state's political establishment. That began in earnest with last fall's endorsement by Sen. Evan Bayh, the popular former governor. She also won the backing of Indiana's Democratic party chair, Dan Parker, who, like Bayh, is among the state's 12 superdelegates. Still, the race is considered so tight that Stephen J. Luecke, South Bend's mayor, began a recent interview with TIME by saying, "Whoever our nominee is, I'm going to fully support him. Or her." Earlier this month, he revealed his allegiance by introducing Obama to a crowd of 3,500 screaming fans at a late-night rally at a high school here.

But if Clinton has an advantage amongst the state's power brokers, Obama appears to have a lead at the grassroots level, and his continued fund-raising advantage reflects that; in March, Indianans gave some $218,800 to Obama's campaign, and $79,600 to Clinton's. "Our goal is to create an army," says Troy Warner, 37, a South Bend electrician who over the last year has become a committed Obama activist, helping to recruit hundreds of volunteers and spread his candidate's message. In February 2007, Warner's wife prodded him to read Obama's book The Audacity of Hope. Soon he was logging onto and creating a Facebook-like page, hoping to connect with nearby Obamanistas. There were few, so he set up a site on the campaign's homepage for local union workers, and another one for any South Bend resident.

Warner's only political experience was making phone calls for a few city council candidates. But by summer, he was organizing a debate party at his home in the city's German Township neighborhood. Twenty people RSVP'd, and only one showed up. Still, he kept pushing, and today he manages Obama supporters who on Saturday afternoons walk door-to-door, drumming up volunteers. His first neighborhood captains meeting drew just 5 people. Last week's drew 160.

After Obama's Feb. 5 Super Tuesday wins, Warner says, "we were swamped with phone calls." The budding group of volunteers began calling itself "Yes We Can, Michicana," a reference to Obama's campaign mantra, and the nickname of this hilly region along the Indiana-Michigan border. On the evening of March 5, about 110 people gathered at the St. Joseph County Democratic headquarters to eat pizza and watch the Ohio and Texas primary results. Then came a call from Obama's Chicago headquarters. An Obama representative told them, "Indiana matters," and gave marching orders: first to get a real estate agent and scout a local campaign office. They settled on a first-floor office in a redbrick building next door to the county-city hall. An elderly Indian-American couple whose children had moved away offered three spare bedrooms for national campaign staffers who were soon to arrive. Warner set up the office's electrical wiring. By Easter, the operation was up and running.

Warner's hometown, South Bend, has a historically unionized, largely white, working-class population that would appear to match the profile of Clinton's core. However, the fact that this city of 106,000 is home to two universities — chiefly Notre Dame — could help Obama. "No one knows how this thing is going to go," says Russ Hanson, political science professor at Indiana University, in Bloomington.

Clinton is not without her own grassroots support in South Bend. Jennifer Peck, a 30-year-old teacher turned stay-at-home mom and part-time waitress, is one such backer. One afternoon last fall, Peck sat in her living room scouring for playgroups for her two young children. Instead, she signed up for a group of South Bend Clinton supporters, and by Thanksgiving was soliciting hundreds of signatures onto petitions to get Clinton on the primary ballot. Last week, she made 200 meatballs for the staffers and volunteers gathered at the local campaign office for a debate-watching party at Clinton's sparse storefront headquarters. "When you're fed, you're happy," she says.

Peck may be an ardent Clinton supporter, but she says she is ready to work for whichever Democrat wins the nomination. If Clinton fails to get the nod, Peck says, "I'll be the first person to walk into Barack Obama's campaign office and say, 'What can I do to help?'" She adds, "And I hope they'd welcome me." At this point, the Democratic Party would welcome all of Indiana into its arms if it can help finally decide, once and for all, who will be the Democratic presidential nominee in the fall.