Indiana in the Spotlight: A Toss-up State for Once

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Joseph Foley / Zuma

Barack Obama supporters during the Obama rally at The Indiana State Fairgrounds Grandstands.

For a sense of just how surprisingly tight the presidential race has become for Indiana's 11 electoral votes, all you had to do was get a glimpse of the Sarah Palin rally in Fort Wayne last Saturday night. The cars rolled up the main road here, past the Hooters and Showgirl III, the violet-colored strip club with tinted windows and a sign that read "SARAH PALIN LOOKALIKE 10 p.m." Just beyond it was Memorial Coliseum, where the vice-presidential nominee herself was appearing, taking the stage after Hank Williams Jr. revved up the crowd. After giving a shout out to the campaign's growing cast of real Americans like "Doug the Barber" and "Chris the Electrician," Palin blasted Barack Obama for "talking about redistributing the wealth."

The audience in the hockey stadium ate it up. "He's a turkey!" one man shouted. "Cook him!" went another. Presidential candidates or their running mates from either party have rarely stopped in Indiana this close to Election Day, because they had little reason to. The Republican bastion hasn't voted for a Democrat since LBJ in 1964. So the very fact that the McCain campaign felt it had to dispatch Palin to rally its base showed just how vulnerable the GOP is this year. "Everything is showing this thing is absolutely in a dead heat, and suddenly, Indiana makes a difference," says Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight, a non-partisan chronicle of the state's politics.

Driving the Democrats' improbable momentum here, as it is across the nation, is angst about the economy: Already this year, thousands of jobs have hemorrhaged from one of Indiana's core industries, manufacturing. But the Democrats' surge is also a reflection of time and resources the Obama campaign has invested in the Hoosier State, a fundamentally conservative but pragmatic place that has often elected Democratic governors and currently has a largely split Congressional delegation.

The Obama campaign has opened 44 offices across Indiana, including two in Elkhart County, a historically Republican-leaning county just to the north of here. "Two years ago, I would have told you that'd be crazy," says Shari Mellin, the county's Democratic Party chair. Now Obama-Biden signs have become fixtures along two-lane country roads abutting cornfields. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has been credited with registering many of Indiana's new would-be voters. Already, some 410,000 Indianans have cast votes. Indiana's secretary of state, Todd Rokita, projects some 65% of the state's 4.5 million voters will participate in this election — the highest since 1992.

The Obama campaign spent an estimated $1.3 million on television advertising in the state between Oct. 21 and Oct. 28, according to a report released Friday by the Wisconsin Advertising Project. The Illinois senator has regularly visited the state and Friday night appeared in Lake County, which is just outside Chicago and boasts a large black population. Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, is scheduled to attend a rally Saturday in Evansville, in the state's southwest corner, which is viewed as being among Indiana's most socially conservative regions.

McCain's campaign here, by contrast, is notably weak, a sign of how the GOP has long taken Indiana for granted. It hasn't opened a single campaign office, and the Indiana Republican Party's local offices are managing McCain's outreach efforts. Republicans spent an estimated $336,000 on television ads between in late October. "You can't turn on the TV without seeing Barack Obama," observed Tami Meisler, a 37-year-old medical technician who waited four hours in near-freezing temperatures to get a seat inside the Coliseum here. In recent weeks, the Republicans have been relying on Palin visits to draw excitement — and news headlines, but McCain has just scheduled a visit to Indianapolis on Monday afternoon, his first visit to the state since July 1. "It's about time they fire up the base," Meisler said.

There are other issues at play. It remains to be seen whether Jill Long Thompson, the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate, can ride the expected surge of Obama's supporters. The incumbent Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, is popular and has cast himself as change agent. He was an early McCain supporter, but has been reluctant to appear at Palin's rallies. "It's a changed environment, a challenging environment, and he wants to appeal beyond his party's base," says Feigenbaum.

Despite Indiana's presidential voting record, it's hard to predict the outcome of this year's race, which right now looks like a virtual dead heat in the polls. Much of it will depend on how much both slates of candidates can get their supporters to actually show up at the polls. That's why on a recent Wednesday night, Chuck Stouder, a 58-year-old RV plant worker, walked from house to house in a leafy, Elkhart County subdivision. His target: Democrats, and voters who had yet to choose a presidential candidate. Some folks didn't bother opening their doors. Some were receptive. In 2004, President Bush won roughly 70% of this county's voters. But this year, Stouder says, "I don't see that happening. They may still win Elkhart County," he says of the Republicans. "I'm thinking we can get within 10."

(See photos of both Barack Obama and John McCain's final days on the campaign trail)