Winning Indiana rests in southern part

INDIANAPOLIS -- The road to winning Indiana's 11 electoral votes — and, potentially, the White House — may go through Mark Jones' living room in southern Indiana.

Jones, a retired 62-year-old teacher from Washington in Daviess County, says he has never voted for a Democrat for president. But in the face of a tough economy and a lingering war, he says he fears Republican John McCain would be a repeat of President Bush.

"I'm probably leaning more toward (Barack) Obama right now," Jones says, "but that still could change."

Middle-class undecided voters such as Jones are essential to the hopes of both Obama and McCain in Indiana.

No Democrat presidential candidate has carried Indiana since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 — and no Democrat has won statewide without also doing well in southern Indiana. "I think it's vital," Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, says of southern Indiana's significance this year.

Emily Parcell, director of Obama's campaign in Indiana, acknowledges the point.

"Anybody looking at the numbers — if we polled the same kind of numbers John Kerry and Al Gore polled in southern Indiana — they can see that we're not going to be successful," Parcell says.

In 2004, Bush received nearly 60% of the overall Indiana vote to just over 39% for Kerry. In 2000, Bush won 57% and Gore took just 41%.

Statewide polls have been mixed. A Reuters-Zogby poll conducted Oct. 23-26 had McCain ahead 50% to 44%. ASurveyUSA poll conducted Oct. 21-22 had Obama leading 49% to 45%. And an Indianapolis Star-WTHR (Channel 13) poll conducted Sunday through Tuesdayhad it essentially even, 45.9% Obama to 45.3% McCain.

Compounding efforts to predict the outcome of Indiana voting are more than 800,000 new and updated voter registrations filed in the state this year, representing nearly one-fifth of the state's about 4.5 million registered voters, according to the Indiana Secretary of State Office.

Obama's campaign has established more than two dozen campaign offices in the state — 15 in southern Indiana, according to Jonathan Swain, communications director for the Obama campaign in Indiana. The candidate has made 47 campaign stops in the state, including seven since the primary, Swain said. Obama is scheduled to appear tonight in Lake County, in northwest Indiana.

McCain has made six campaign stops, according to Jennifer Hallowell, the former executive director of the Indiana Republican Party, who is leading McCain's campaign in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana

Hallowell says that although the campaign hasn't opened separate offices in Indiana, it has a built-in advantage with strong county party operations, which are the foundation of its grass-roots outreach efforts.

Ron Sharp, 55, a loan officer from Petersburg in Pike County who voted twice for Bill Clinton and twice for Bush, says he wants to see the United States drill for oil in more places. "I'm having a real hard time with liberal Democrat tree-huggers not wanting to drill up there on a little spit of land in Alaska," Sharp says.

McCain has consistently opposed drilling in Alaska, while his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, supports it. Sharp also says he believes the Iraq war is "a waste of time" and money — a view he shares with Obama.

Sharp says he is leaning toward McCain, primarily because of the Arizona senator's experience and his concern that Obama is too liberal. He also likes Palin's conservative stance on social issues.

Jones, the retired teacher, says he is concerned about the economy and sees McCain's approach as "the same old Bush" tactics.

Also undecided is Dawn Snider, 57, a nurse who calls herself an "independent Republican" who voted twice for Bush.

Right after the GOP convention, she says, McCain's choice of Palin looked like it could be the tiebreaker for her this year. As she watched the debates and read more, however, Snider says some of her excitement for Palin dimmed, and she is no longer sure whether Palin will be a factor in her vote.

"The health care situation is how I'm going to base my decision," Snider says.

Former Indiana House speaker John Gregg, who supported fellow Democrat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York during the primary season, was among Hoosiers who took offense to Obama's much-publicized comments in which he referred to bitter small-town folks who cling to guns and religion. Those words hurt Obama during the primary campaign in southern Indiana.

Now, Gregg says, he and many people he knows in his region are backing Obama.

"It's because of health care costs. It's because of an economy in recession. It's because of a war without end," Gregg says. "It's because, because, because."

Evans and Schneider report for TheIndianapolis Star