Jo Russell walked around the front side of a New Albany housing unit, with Deborah Dansby close behind. The women were canvassing for Barack Obama on a pristine Saturday afternoon, and they were trying to get their bearings. Deborah held a stack of paperwork that included their target list, registered Democrats living within a few blocks of Beechwood Avenue, a short connector between Grant Line and Charlestown roads. They passed one front door in the duplex and slowly approached the other, still not quite sure they had the right address.
Suddenly, a large black dog, a Lab perhaps, uncoiled and charged, his bark like an approaching train. The two instinctively prepared to take flight, but after what seemed like minutes, they realized the dog was tied and could not reach them. They exhaled.
Fortunately for them, it wasn’t an omen. Things proceeded more favorably over the next hour.
In this hulking, interminable beast of a process by which we nominate presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton had it locked up, but she took her eye off the ball and let the upstart Barack Obama get the upper hand.
Thanks to his vaunted organizing skills, he has smoked her in caucus states, which account for 90 percent of his delegate lead. He’s raised amazing sums of money. Yet he hasn’t been able to put her away, prompting dismay and defiance, and rampant talk of a brokered convention — DNC Chairman Howard Dean said it has to be wrapped up by June, but it still seems up in the air on some level.
That makes Indiana important for the first time since 1968. That is the year Bobby Kennedy was in Indianapolis campaigning on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He delivered a historic speech, and then went on to win the Indiana primary a few weeks later over Indiana Gov. Roger Branigan, running as a favorite son, and Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy then traveled to California and spent the next month campaigning before he was assassinated in early June, after winning the primary there.
How important are the Hoosiers? Clinton supporter James Carville, who counts the disqualified votes from Florida and Michigan in Clinton’s column, recently predicted that whoever wins Indiana will get the nomination. Lee Hamilton, the former 9th District Congressman from Indiana who has endorsed Obama, said U.S. election results, and hence Indiana’s role, are being watched around the world, from Baghdad to Darfur, Johannesburg to Tokyo.
Generally speaking, Indiana tends to vote conservatively, and you might expect results there to mirror states like Ohio or Pennsylvania, both carried by Clinton. And yet, for a few weeks now, polls have shown Obama and Clinton in a dead heat, with many voters still undecided. Hoosiers have seen the candidates almost every day over the past couple weeks.
This is heady stuff for a flyover state with 11 electoral votes.
Each candidate has a field office in New Albany, about a tenth-of-a-mile apart on West Main Street, hers a bland storefront with a small-town law office feel, his an unexpectedly stately one with tall stone pillars at its entranceway. Clinton met with a tiny crowd at a New Albany restaurant last month before crossing the river for a larger rally at DuPont Manual High School, and plans to visit Jeffersonville tomorrow; Obama held a town hall meeting last Wednesday at Indiana University Southeast.
While the larger themes we hear about nationally are generally evident locally — the Obama office is indeed full of young and enthusiastic staff and volunteers, while the Clinton office has the distinct peripatetic look of old-school precinct politics — it would be a mistake to understate either side’s enthusiasm.
I spent an hour with volunteers from each campaign as they went into neighborhoods in search of registered Democratic voters. One Saturday afternoon I followed Clinton volunteer Jerry Griffith into Capitol Hills, a Jeffersonville subdivision that fits the working class demographic.
Griffith had heard of Clinton volunteers encountering nasty responses, things like PMS references, but she sees nothing like that along a street named Presidential Place. One woman briskly closes the door in her face. A young black woman talking on the phone kindly says she’s with Obama. Mike Nevels, still in jeans and work shirt, says he’s undecided but leaning toward Clinton.
Griffith knocks on another door and asks for a woman whose name is on the list. Greg Hubbell says his wife isn’t home, and Griffith engages him in discussion. He says he is a disabled vet and wildly frustrated by the constant runaround over benefits. He apologizes for his vehemence, even though he remains exceedingly measured.
My hour with the Obama volunteers begins the following Saturday at Rich O’s in New Albany, one of several “potluck” gathering sites around Indiana. Russell and Dansby hang out and eat pizza while the manager of Obama’s New Albany office, a 19-year-old California woman who’s put college on hold to work for the campaign, briefs them about canvassing.The volunteers head off to the Beechwood public housing project, then walk several side streets nearby. These are modest older houses; there are several dogs around, some running free, which doesn’t escape Russell’s notice. Many of the people on their list aren’t home, but the volunteers run into several people outdoors and get a generally enthusiastic response, including from a few registered Republicans who say they’ll vote for Obama.
Later, I call Hubbell, the undecided voter from Jeffersonville, and ask him to expound.
He is now 42 and works for a trucking company, managing a staff of diesel mechanics. He was in the Army from 1986-95 and considered making it a career. He worked on trucks for the Army, and besides the hearing loss in his right ear, the wear and tear took a toll on his right knee; he’s had four surgeries on it. His left leg also began to hurt after compensating for the right, and he’s had one surgery on it now, too. His injuries occurred while he was on active duty, he said, and procedures have been handled by VA physicians. But he’s been frustrated by the VA’s evaluation process, conducted by people who have never seen him. They tell him his left leg couldn’t hurt the way he says it does.
I push him on what he’s looking for to help him decide which presidential candidate will get his vote (Indiana’s primaries are open, meaning you can vote in either primary regardless of how you’re registered), and I get the sense he’s got problems with all three and would like to roll a dash of each into an acceptable one.
The prolonged primary has allowed Hoosiers to put their own spin on what now seem like ceaseless arguments:
• Hillary Clinton has more experience and she’ll bring Bill along for the ride. (The Clintons are a rolling shitstorm, and we don’t need to extend the Bush-Clinton-Bush thing any longer.)
• Barack Obama will symbolize to the rest of the world that our country is emerging from eight years of Bush insanity. (Obama is too green — not ready for the job.)
Not to mention the ongoing saga of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or Obama’s comments about bitter voters in small-town America. Both could be a factor here.
And so it goes.
Hoosiers, like the rest of the nation, seem more caught up in the personal stuff; in the course of my reporting, I scarcely heard anyone talk deeply about issues. Perhaps that’s an indication of the similarities between Clinton and Obama — both would push for a variation on universal healthcare, although neither would go to the brink. She is wishy-washy on trade — she’d revisit NAFTA immediately, but as a U.S. senator, she’s voted for every trade agreement that’s come along. Obama says the right things about green issues, yet in the Senate he worked with Kentucky’s Jim Bunning to promote coal-to-liquid technology that experts say is a pig in a poke.
Some say they’d like to see the pair run as a team, but wonder whether the candidates can overlook the harsh words they’ve exchanged. There is also the specter of identity politics — one group or another, waiting in the wings for so long, is going to be disappointed.
Some Hoosiers have their minds made up, but for many, it’s not an easy call. Many people who agree on many things are on either side of this issue.
Hamilton, the former 9th District representative who went on to greater prominence as the co-chair of both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, says he thinks Obama is the candidate “most likely to break the bad habits in Washington and bring the country together.”
Noting the country’s partisan gridlock, Hamilton said Obama “clearly intends to try to practice the politics of consensus-building. … I think he is the candidate most likely to bring … real change, not just transition but transformation in government, and to reinvent American politics at home and reinvent America’s image abroad.”
But Judy O’Bannon, widow of former Gov. Frank O’Bannon, herself something of a rock star in Indiana, supports Clinton. She got to know the Clintons when her husband chaired the Democratic Governors Association; Frank and Bill Clinton worked on education initiatives while Clinton was in the White House. Judy O’Bannon liked the Clintons then and remains loyal, making dozens of campaign appearances with one Clinton or another. O’Bannon says it comes down to how a candidate sees the world, and she believes Hillary’s worldview is more grounded in experience. She notes that Clinton is amazingly unflappable in the face of harsh criticism, which tells her that the candidate is battle-tested.
Griffith, the Clinton volunteer, is convinced that Obama is like a recent MBA grad who wants to run the company — he has a bright future, but he’s gotta pay dues and learn some things.
Oddly, Griffith saw her convictions put to a direct test last Wednesday. Obama was in the area for the IUS visit, and shot footage for a TV commercial in downtown Jeffersonville that afternoon. Griffith walked over from her nearby home to see about the commotion. As she walked down Spring Street, Obama came straight toward her. He stopped to chat. She professed her support for Clinton — she’s seen the pretty boys before, she says, and yes, he’s handsome and charming — but you’ve got to vote with your head. The pretty boys don’t always deliver.
“Why are you giving me such a hard time?” Obama asked her.
It’s a question, she noted, that she might well ask of him.
It is that kind of year.
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