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'Lunch-bucket' issues on menu in Indiana

KOKOMO, Ind. — KOKOMO, Ind. -- Gasoline reached $3.75 a gallon last week in a state that has become a must-win for Hillary Clinton and a test of the appeal of Barack Obama's economic prescriptions.

For Hoosiers who drive long miles on rail-straight highways for jobs once closer to home, soaring prices for everyday necessities create an unsettled backdrop for Tuesday's primary.

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"Folks are concerned about the lunch-bucket kind of issues: the cost of food, the price of gas," said Tim Joyce, chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon, and who now runs an agency that helps the homeless. "Folks are listening to messages and saying, 'What does this mean to me?'"

Polls show a tight contest here that could hinge on various factors, from the economy to turnout in larger cities to the number of Republicans who decide to cast ballots in the Democratic primary. Voters in Indiana don't register by party, and there is no practical prohibition on Republicans and independents voting in Democratic races. Thousands likely will, but it's unclear who will benefit more.

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Obama could all but knock Clinton out of the Democratic presidential race if he combined a win in North Carolina with a victory in Indiana, something that seemed within reach just several weeks ago. But chances of such a sweep are shrinking, despite his recent pickup of a pair of influential superdelegates here. Indiana could well join Pennsylvania and Ohio as heartland states keeping the Clinton campaign afloat.

On the offensive

Clinton's aggressive talk about taking on oil companies and suspending the federal gasoline tax is providing buoyancy to her candidacy, as Obama is being dragged down by attention to his association with a controversial pastor.

She's driving home the message with frequent television commercials and a wave of appearances across the state - more than 80, she said, when events by her husband and daughter are included. The number is growing this weekend, and Clinton and Obama will each appear on morning news programs today broadcast from Indiana.

Clinton is finding enthusiastic responses during her tour from supporters who like to wave "Hoosiers for Hillary" signs.

"She ran this country for eight years. She can run it for another eight years," said Bill Swaggerty, 44, a United Auto Workers member at Delphi Corp., an auto parts supplier that employs 5,000 in Kokomo and has filed for bankruptcy protection. "You ask her a question, and she'll answer. I love the woman. I love the way she speaks, and thinks."

Swaggerty and hundreds of others cheered lustily last week as Clinton, speaking under gymnasium banners commemorating the Kokomo high school's basketball victories, vowed to get tough on China, OPEC and commodity traders, who she said are driving up the price of crude.

"I'm not going to sit idly by," she said. "I think the oil market is being manipulated. And I think there's evidence of that."

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The tough talk is pleasing supporters in the union towns of central Indiana. When the president of a local steelworker's union said that Clinton has "testicular fortitude," the phrase stuck.

"When it comes down to it, I'd rather have a woman who has [that kind of fortitude] than a man who doesn't," said Theresa Cahue-Banter, a Kokomo resident who has seen Clinton speak three times. Obama, she said, is "a nice man, but he's a wimp."

Forty-nine percent of Indiana votes named the economy as their top concern in a poll by the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics released Friday, compared with 13 percent who said Iraq. Recognizing the reality, Obama has shifted from large stadium rallies where he is greeted like a rock star in favor of smaller events at steel plants and factories in Indiana, trying to connect with struggling voters.

But with the continuing controversy over the inflammatory remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's campaign has lost some focus. "You're right, we've had a rough couple of weeks. I won't deny that," Obama told reporters in Indianapolis on Friday. "As long as I am talking about the issues that matter to them, I think we have a pretty good chance."

Obama has been fending off Clinton's call to suspend the 18.4-cent-per gallon federal gasoline tax this summer, an idea supported by Republican John McCain. Obama called it a "gimmick" that would save families 30 cents a day.

That's "less than you can buy a cup of coffee for at the 7-Eleven," Obama told a small group of voters at an Indianapolis park, reaching for a real-world example with broader appeal than his much-dissected observation about the high price of arugula at gourmet markets.

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Filling his pickup truck in Anderson, a shrinking city of 59,000 recovering from the loss of thousands of General Motors jobs in recent years, Matt Rosinski, 40, agreed with Obama's assessment. A gas tax suspension is "just a temporary fix," he said.

High gas prices "are killing me," said Rosinski, who spends $20 a day commuting to Indianapolis, where he works as a machine operator. He can't find comparable employment closer to home, he said. "I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. His savings have been wiped out over the past five years by medical payments incurred after a car accident.

Rosinski plans to vote for Obama, because "I'm just looking for new ideas."

Rare relevance

Indiana voters are excited about being in the middle of a relevant presidential primary for the first time since 1968, when it cast the first ballots after President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. Early voting and absentee ballots have doubled from four years ago, and there are more than 200,000 new registered voters.

The state defies easy description as a Rust Belt relic or a farming center. Factories have left, but others have taken their place. New highways are being planned, and cookie-cutter town centers and modern medical offices rise on the fringes of Indianapolis. The population of 6.3 million is roughly 86 percent white and 8 percent black. Fewer than one in five adults has a college degree.

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"It's a state where the Republican Party has been more of the Main Street, Chamber of Commerce type, and the Democratic Party has been mostly of the small town, union worker and traditional FDR type," said Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne. "The Democrats haven't gone far left, and the Republicans haven't gone far right."

Gary, Ind., and the northwest quarter of the state are covered by the Chicago media market, making Obama a familiar figure. "He has to make sure that the northwest part of the state has a large turnout, and Indianapolis and Marion County has a large turnout," said Andrew Downs, who runs the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne.

Clinton does best in smaller cities and rural areas.

Fueling the unpredictability of the Indiana vote is the open primary. Obama has previously done well in states where voters can cross over.

"I've got a lot of Republican friends who are voting in the Democratic primary, not to prolong things but because they are excited by the candidates," said Helmke, the former Fort Wayne mayor. "My parents, who have voted Republican for years, both voted in the Democratic primary this year."

Backing Clinton is Sen. Evan Bayh, a popular politician mentioned as a possible running mate.

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If that happens, some predict that Indiana could vote Democratic in the general election, which has happened just once in the past seven decades, in 1964.

But Bayh's armor was dented last week when two Indiana superdelegates, Rep. Baron P. Hill and former Democratic National Committee head Joe Andrew, defied him and endorsed Obama.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com


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