When Democrats chase Hoosiers and Region Rats

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seek votes in Indiana, a state fraught with economic woes and unlikely relevance for the '08 race.

By Edward McClelland

Published April 28, 2008 9:33PM (EDT)

A presidential campaign in which Indiana matters is like a wedding or a high school graduation. It happens once in a lifetime. When it comes to politics, Hoosiers have certain traditions. They always vote Republican -- when you don't swing, candidates don't ring -- and they hold their primary in May, normally way too late to be relevant. Stories of Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon stumping here in 1968 sound as remote as the Johnny Appleseed legends. But the Democratic deadlock has forced Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton into Indiana. The voters in this political flyover have gotten a rare chance to tell stories of padlocked factories and dwindling towns. And Democrats are getting serious face time in a state they haven't won since the LBJ landslide of '64.

Robert Coleman and Henry Gates III, a pair of union electricians, were standing at the bar of Bennigan's after a shift at the smoldering U.S. Steel mill just across the highway. They're here every Friday -- Coleman with a pint of beer, Gates with a whiskey neat. This time, Clinton would be joining the scene.

"This is, like, the first time in a while we've had a presidential candidate come through," Gates said.

Gates was for Obama, while Coleman favored Clinton, unlike most residents of the town, he conceded. But both were gratified to see a presidential candidate in Gary, an abandoned city that consistently leads the nation in violence and unemployment, whose planetarium-domed City Hall is dingy from a century of smoke blown in by lake winds, and whose neighborhood commerce consists of cinder-block liquor stores painted with dated cocktail-lounge murals.

"I want them to know about all of the rapid unemployment in the steel industry," Coleman said. "The steel mills were employing 30,000 back in the '60 and '70s."

In the booths, diners pried apart blinds to follow Clinton's progress along the sidewalk. Barging through the door, she looked wide-eyed, as though she'd wandered into a surprise party full of cheering guests. Grabbing a pen, Clinton swept into the room and started signing autographs. Through the crowd, you could see her canary coif moving efficiently down the bar.

Lu Bishop got a "Hillary" signature on her "Cutters" T-shirt. In Pennsylvania, Clinton compared herself to Rocky Balboa. But Indiana also had a '70s movie about a blue-collar underdog using sports as a vehicle to a richer life. "Hillary's breaking away!" Bishop shouted. "Like Dave Stohler."

After 20 minutes, Gary's first visiting presidential candidate since Robert F. Kennedy was back out the door.

Clinton and Obama spent the weekend in Indiana campaigning on each other's turf. Northwest Indiana's Calumet Region -- "Da Region" in the local patois -- was once described as "an urban barnacle on the underside of Chicago." Region Rats, as locals call themselves, watch Obama on Chicago TV and root for the Bears. If Clinton wants to win Indiana, she needs to break even here, says Thomas McDermott, a Clinton supporter and the mayor of Hammond.

Obama, who has a slight lead in the most recent polls, was deep in Hoosier Country, trying to bolster his metro-area support by rallying African-Americans and laid-off factory workers in small towns. Riding a bus between county seats marooned among untilled soybean fields, he drew a diverse crowd in Marion, a city that has a history of racial conflict. Both Obama and Clinton are using this trip to prepare for a far more difficult task: winning Indiana in November, a feat accomplished by only three Democrats in the 20th century.

After Bennigan's, Clinton on Friday spoke at a steelworkers' hall. Standing in front of a "Patton"-size American flag, she promised to get tough with, well, everybody -- the Republicans, the Saudis, Big Oil, Big Pharma. As this campaign enters the closing rounds, Clinton is becoming more and more confrontational. If she takes the act any further, she'll be riding a Harley onstage in a leather pantsuit. What really thrilled the crowd, in this room with a "Save American Steel" banner, was her China-bashing. Indiana is the nation's leading steel-making state, and many here blame the Chinese for undercutting the industry by dumping cheap steel in the U.S. market. Clinton promised to take rule violations before the International Trade Commission and slap "countervailing duties" on price-fixing nations.

"I think we're the only free market in the world," she said, in a tone that suggested we're also the biggest chumps in the world. "Every other country seems to have obstacles to keep our products from getting in."

"A woman of steel!" a steelworker shouted.

Clinton's nighttime rally was at East Chicago High School. The industrial suburb is 50 percent Latino. "We remember what the Clintons did for us in the '90s, on immigration, and appointing Cabinet members," said Myrna Maldonado, an East Chicago Common Council member. The candidate was joined onstage by Sen. Evan Bayh (who still looks like a Sears model at age 52) and by Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers union. Clinton, who knows how to pick a crowd-pleasing enemy, this time went after the Bush administration and the Chinese in a single anecdote.

"Under Bush, defense manufacturers have outsourced jobs to foreign countries," she said. "There's a plant in Valparaiso that made magnets for smart bombs. A Chinese company bought it. We lost our hold on that technology. The Chinese now know how to make those magnets."

Gary Howard, a machinist with a Russian patriarch's beard, liked Clinton's protectionism. Howard works at a bearing manufacturer that uses Chinese stainless steel in some of its products. "If they put tariffs on that steel," he said, "we'd make that steel here."

Then the crowd filed out, to John Mellencamp's "Our Country." Mellencamp is for Obama, but this was Indiana.

Once you leave Da Region, Indiana is America's quintessential small-town state. Its residents are scattered among dozens of county seats whose proudest landmarks are a limestone courthouse and a banner commemorating a state basketball championship. A woman in Gary explained the state's conservatism -- and its divisions -- this way: "That's those Colts fans. Up here in Da Region, we go for Da Bears and Da Democrats." Only Vermont has voted Republican for president more often than Indiana, and Vermont broke that habit years ago. Indiana is now the dean of red states.

"We are an individualistic state," said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. "We expect the government to provide certain individual services like fire and police. We don't expect it to go out looking for problems to solve. This is not a moralistic culture. We're a state of moderates, and for a lot of voters here, they think that to get the nomination of the Democratic Party, you have sold out to a liberal idea."

Despite the state's industrial woes, Hoosiers are unlikely to embrace the government programs Clinton and Obama are offering, Downs says. They believe in the marketplace and they dislike taxes -- a libertarian streak that also makes Indiana a good place to buy cheap cigarettes, fireworks and 190-proof alcohol.

On the other hand, Indiana was one of the key states in the Democrats' 2006 takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fed up with the war in Iraq, Hoosiers dumped three Republican congressmen. One had represented Kokomo, where Obama visited Friday.

"We don't have a lot of real big cities," said Bob Stephenson, chairman of the Howard County Democratic Party, in Kokomo. "We think of ourselves as rural. Those rural values are important to us. We've really bought into those wedge issues -- gun control, prayer in school, gay marriage. But I think the state is changing. It's tough times in Indiana, and I think people are seeing through those wedge issues."

A recent Indianapolis Star poll had Obama leading McCain, 49-41. Clinton and McCain were tied.

When his campaign was feeling cockier, Obama entered arenas to U2's "City of Blinding Lights." Not in Indiana. On Saturday morning, at the Marion High School gymnasium, he was introduced by Bernie Smith, a displaced factory worker who could not have been further from Bono on the rock star scale. Heavyset, with neatly combed hair, wire glasses and a baggy yellow shirt, he nervously announced, "This is probably the coolest thing I've ever done in my life."

In 2004, Smith was one of 990 workers laid off when RCA closed its picture-tube plant in Marion. (Four hours after the announcement, a fire broke out in the factory, destroying 600 tubes.) Smith had worked at RCA for 38 years, following his father, but he now has a job in a discount store distribution center. "I don't make as much money," he said, "but I'm lucky to have a job. What we need is more jobs."

The same year the plant shut down, Grant County gave 68 percent of its votes to George W. Bush. That was another Smith family tradition, but it has also gone the way of RCA.

"I was raised as a Republican," Smith said, "and I can't feel that way anymore."

In Marion, high school basketball is right up there with God and country: The gym seats a quarter of the city's population. Obama stood beneath the Giants' seven state championship banners and talked about his 3-on-3 game in Kokomo the night before. After his gutter balls in Pennsylvania, the man with his own high school basketball title was thrilled to campaign in the land of Larry Bird, Bob Knight and "Hoosiers."

"I want to thank the guys from Marion that I played ball with yesterday," he said. "I had to take some ibuprofen. When you're 46 and you're chasing 17-year-olds, it's rough."

Blake Hancock, a Marion High baller, earned a game with Obama by registering 180 voters. "He was body-checking," Nelson said. "One of my teammates fouled him hard. He knocked [Obama] down. The gym got quiet. Then everybody started dunking." Except the middle-aged guy, he said.

Obama's speech was shorter and less oratorical than past offerings. He responded to the obligatory "We love you, Obama" with a businesslike "Love you back." This appearance was not about his charisma but rather Marion's troubles -- families here earn $9,000 less than the national average, unemployment is 7 percent, and a third of the manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Marion still has a General Motors plant, but like all autoworkers, as Obama acknowledged, they're worried about pay cuts, layoffs and plant closings.

"This last economic expansion was the first in history where average income went down $1,000," he said. "Corporate profits went up. Millionaires are becoming billionaires."

Then, instead of leaving the building to a rock anthem, Obama spent 45 minutes answering questions. To a woman who asked about his first three acts as president, he promised to withdraw from Iraq, lower health insurance premiums by $2,500 a year per family, and "rebuild competitiveness" by spending $60 billion on roads, bridges and broadband capacity.

To voters anxious about college, Obama promised more Pell grants and a $4,000 annual tuition credit. To a man incensed by the fine print in mortgage loans and credit cards, Obama mentioned the Stop Fraud Act, written to crack down on deceptive lending. At the same time, he appealed to the crowd's sense of responsibility -- don't skip college because you expect a good factory job. Take that zero-interest card to Target, you're going to end up in debt.

A white man asked Obama whether he'd open a dialogue on "racial relations and integration issues." That's still a big question in Marion, whose population is one-sixth black, and whose racial history has as much in common with the South as the Midwest.

"We take forward steps when we're unified, and one of the central ways we've always been divided is on issues of race," Obama said. "But we have made progress over the last 40 years. The American people want to move beyond the tragic history of our past."

That's a standard Obama line, but it may also have been a reference to Marion's own tragic past and its progress. After the rally, local Democrats gathered in the courthouse square for a cookout. Gospel music wailed from a speaker while children danced on Adams Street. A young man from Philly set up a T-shirt stand. The campaign for America's first black president had arrived at the very spot where the last lynching north of the Mason-Dixon line took place. On Aug. 7, 1930, sledgehammer-wielding whites battered their way into the county jail to kidnap two black prisoners accused of shooting a white man and raping a white woman. A photograph of the gleeful mob appeared in Life magazine, inspiring the song "Strange Fruit."

When the Rev. Al C. Green moved to Marion from Mississippi in 1969, the hanging tree was still standing, with a ring of rope embedded in the bark. Since then, the tree has been cut down, Grant County elected the first black sheriff in Indiana, biracial basketball teams won state titles, and, on that day, both races gathered to cheer Barack Obama.

"It amazed me," Green said, "because I've never seen a group this large where the blacks really stood out."

It amazed Tondalaya Bolden, too. "I just didn't think people would come out as strong as they came," she said, waiting in line for a hot dog. "I thought there were more Republicans. I just didn't expect people to support a black man. When I first came to Marion, they had a Ku Klux Klan rally. There were a lot of white people saying, 'We don't want you here. Get out of our town.'"

Indiana loves its traditions. But Indiana can change, too.

Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton U.s. Economy