As Indiana and North Carolina hold Democratic presidential primaries Tuesday, residents in two small, working-class towns say economic concerns will determine whether they back Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama. Voters cite jobs and the high costs of food and gas the most important problems.
PRINCETON, Ind. — By many measures, the economy is fine in this corner of Indiana. Unemployment is at 4.6%, lower than the state's 5.2% rate. Wheat and corn from the farms that surround town fetch high prices, and demand is strong for coal from the mines that dot the area. The county's biggest employer, Toyota, is building a facility to build car seat frames that will provide about 200 new jobs.
So why is everyone so worried?
"It's a shame when you can't take $20 and go to the store and get enough to feed a family," says Linda Straw, 48, who has two jobs and is about to start a third at a convenience store. High gas prices, high food prices and worries about disappearing manufacturing jobs mean that Princeton voters are sizing up Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama to see which they trust to bring back good times.
Both candidates are working the region: Clinton visited here Tuesday, drawing more than 1,500 people to a rally on the courthouse steps, where Democratic Mayor Robert Hurst endorsed her.
Obama came to nearby Evansville, the region's largest city, on April 22, drew a crowd of 8,000 people, and won the endorsement of the city's mayor. "He had the audience in the palm of his hand," says Robert Dion, a University of Evansville political scientist.
High gas prices are a double whammy for Princeton. Not only do they hurt residents at the pump, but sales of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs are slumping — and that's just what Toyota makes here. The massive plant south of town makes Tundra trucks and Sequoia SUVs. Toyota has slowed production and last year laid off 400 temporary workers.
"It's making me nervous, and I don't even work there," says Mark Myers, a mailman.
Lou Andriakos, proprietor of Greek's Candy Store, has noticed less home construction when he's out delivering the local paper. He's noticed a slowdown in housing construction. "Up until last year, on my paper route, you couldn't believe how many houses they were building," he says. "Not anymore."
"It costs as much to gas up my lawnmower as it used to cost to fill up my car," says Loretta Wells, a florist at Karen's Flowers and Gifts on the town square.
The store hiked its delivery fee from $2 to $5 to cover higher gas costs. "Probably most of the residents here are seeing some economic crunch," says owner Karen Ellerman, who is undecided. "Not everybody here works at Toyota."
In fact, only 20% of Toyota's workforce lives in Gibson County, of which Princeton is the county seat. The rest come from the surrounding counties and Illinois and Kentucky.
Voters also notice price increases in the supermarket. "We haven't had a steak in forever," says Mary Goodman, a seamstress, as she heads into Wal-Mart. "I look at the $10-a-pound price tag, and I pick up the ground chuck." She cast her vote early, for Clinton.
All around, people feel less flush — even Toyota workers, says Larry Wallace, who works on the automotive assembly line. "We still have to pay $3.60 for gas," he says.
Selling concessions to the small crowd at the Princeton High Lady Tigers' softball game, "we used to have $400 nights," says Linda Yeryar, a school secretary whose daughter Melissa is a junior-varsity catcher. "The last three or four games, we've had $200 nights."
The demographics here — almost entirely white, largely working class, slightly older than the state median — favor Clinton: These groups have voted strongly for her in previous primaries.
Bill Clinton's popularity, and the memory of economic good times during his tenure, also wins people over.
"I know when Bill was in office, my portfolio was better," says Charlie Mayfield, county Democratic chairman and a retired railroad employee.
Tami Boyle and her mother Pat White, who run the Broken In resale shop next door, were in the crowd for Clinton's rally. "We loved it!" White says.
Both women support Clinton. "They both have good ideas, but she tells us how she'd do it," Boyle says. Clinton's plan for a gas-tax holiday would help; she also likes Clinton's proposal to file a World Trade Organization complaint against OPEC. "I like it because she went a step further."
Sitting one booth over, Linda Straw, one of the town's few African-American residents, sees things just the opposite way. She doesn't trust Clinton, she says, and plans to vote for Obama because, for one thing, he has promised to lower the cost of health insurance.
"It's what he's been saying and what he's going to do," she says.
Mindful of commuting costs
PRINCETON, N.C. — From the Piggly Wiggly supermarket parking lot here to the bleachers of the high school's softball field, two topics dominate conversations: gas prices and politics.
Residents agree that they are feeling the financial pinch of soaring gas prices. But just days before Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary, many say they are less certain about which candidate is best equipped to help.
"By the time you fill your gas tank up, buy your groceries and pay your light bills, you are broke," said John Lassiter, who commutes 80 miles roundtrip everyday in his Ford F-250 pickup to his job as a maintenance worker in Raleigh. His monthly gas bill of nearly $700 eats up about a third of his pay.
"I don't know who I'm going to vote for," said Lassiter, 43. "They are fighting more over their personal lives than they are about what's going on in the country."
Lassiter and other working-class residents of this small North Carolina town and their neighbors in Johnston County are crucial to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in their battle.
For Clinton, who trails Obama in convention delegates, the state may be her last chance to persuade uncommitted superdelegates, the party insiders and elected officials who hold the balance of power in deciding the nomination, to endorse her. Obama, meanwhile, is seeking to end doubts about his ability to attract blue-collar voters who have sided with Clinton in previous contests.
At first glance, the economy of Princeton and the surrounding Johnston County appears strong. Unemployment is lower than in the state and the nation. Subdivisions are going up on former farmland around Princeton. But like many counties in the Tar Heel state, residents are grappling with how to survive in a changing economy.
Between 2000 and 2007, North Carolina shed nearly 30% of its manufacturing jobs — as factories trimmed workforces or shut down. Just last year, a plant in nearby Selma that built truck parts closed and moved its operations to Mexico. Two hundred jobs were lost.
About 70% of Princeton residents commute out of town for work, said Mayor Don Rains, a Democrat who backs Clinton. "The transportation costs are becoming an extreme burden," he said.
Nanita Poston, 35, who cleans state government offices in Raleigh, said she has been looking for work closer to home for more than a year — with no success. "Everything around here has closed up or gone overseas."
Poston said that as a black woman she was excited by the candidacies of both Clinton and Obama, but is likely to vote for the Illinois senator. "He seems to really understand what it means to work for what you have," she said.
Kim Grice, 40, said she wants a president who knows what it's like to work hard, and that's Clinton. "I feel like the Clintons came from nothing and made money," said Grice, a thrift-store manager.
For weeks, Obama held a double-digit lead in polls of North Carolinians. But three polls out this week show Clinton narrowing the gap. Much of the loss has been among white voters, which Tom Jensen, of Public Policy Polling, attributes to the fallout over the remarks of Obama's longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright and aggressive campaigning by Clinton and her surrogates. Former president Bill Clinton visited 11 North Carolina towns on Tuesday and Wednesday, many of them communities hit hard by job losses.
Obama also campaigned in the state this week but spent two days responding to the latest remarks by Wright, who suggested that the United States promoted terrorism and created AIDS to kill blacks. Obama has denounced Wright's comments and broken ties with the retired pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.
Wright's comments are one reason Burton Johnson says he is likely to vote for Clinton. "I don't think the United States government is trying to give AIDS to the black people," said Johnson, 60, a retired meat inspector, who lives in nearby Bentonville. "I don't think a preacher should be saying that."
Even so, Johnson, a Democrat who backed George Bush in 2004, said he wasn't enthusiastic about his choices. He's not sure what any candidate will do to address his top concerns: lowering gas prices and ending the war in Iraq.
Mary Ferguson, 35, a stay-at-home mother of four, said she will vote for Obama. "It's not his fault what his pastor has to say." At the same time, she said, "I don't think we are ready for a woman president. I may be wrong, and I'm sorry if I offend the women's groups, but it's a man's job."
Moore reported from Indiana, Schouten from North Carolina