`Lunch-bucket' issues on menu in Indiana

Economy backdrop of Democratic vote

Election 2008

May 04, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

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.

"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.

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."

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.

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.

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