PRINCETON, Ind. — In a town square dotted with vacant brick storefronts and busted-out second story windows, 2,500 pumped up Hoosiers waited in 45-degree weather for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's motorcade to finally show. Princeton, population 8,100, had not attracted such star power since Jack Kennedy in 1960.
"It's so exciting. This is the first time they've cared what we think. We matter," Donna Jones, a product inspector at the nearby Toyota plant, crowed. "Even if the people in that campaign caravan only look out their windows, they'll see the conditions here and what we need — new industry."
To the east 160 miles in Indianapolis, Democrat Jason Wisdom, 39, punched out early from the Rolls-Royce plant when he heard Barack Obama would be talking to voters in Garfield Park.
"The primary's always wrapped up by the time it gets to Indiana, and Indiana is so Republican that on TV in November it's always the first or second state on the electoral map they declare red," Wisdom said, moments after snatching an Obama handshake. "Until now, not once in my life have I voted in an election where I felt my vote mattered."
Many national party leaders are wringing their hands over the drawn-out Democratic primary, but Indiana voters are relishing the attention that comes with being a political battleground for the first time in 40 years.
For all the turmoil over whether the votes in Florida and Michigan will count, this volatile Democratic primary has produced one refreshing development: an opportunity for every single state to have some influence in the nomination.
"We don't know what to do with ourselves, we're so excited in Indiana right now," laughed Andrew Downs, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. "We're so used to being told, 'Here's the nominee we've already picked for you,' and now people in Indiana are thinking, 'Hey, I can think about this awhile and make up my own mind.' "
Indiana and North Carolina weigh in on Obama vs. Clinton on Tuesday, and the results stand to dramatically alter the campaign.
Obama's small lead in elected delegates remains nearly insurmountable, but he has been dogged by controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and doubts about his ability to win over working class white voters. Indiana represents his last, best opportunity to show that he can defeat Clinton in a big state.
If Clinton manages a big win in Indiana, where recent polls show a neck-and-neck race, and if she comes close in North Carolina, where Obama has been heavily favored, it could signal to superdelegates that Obama is mortally wounded and trigger a contested convention.
If Obama wins both states, Clinton's campaign is probably over.
So Barack and Michelle Obama and Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea Clinton have been criss-crossing this state long ignored by presidential campaigns nearly every day since she won Pennsylvania's primary nearly two weeks ago.
There's Clinton filling up a Ford 250 pickup with a sheet metal worker in Sound Bend, and then laughing in Portage as a labor leader touts the former first lady's "testicular fortitude."
And there's Obama and his wife eating Subway sandwiches with a cash-strapped family in Beech Grove, and then revving up a crowd of more than 12,000 in the liberal bastion of Bloomington.
He hammers at the theme that issues are being overlooked in a campaign that has focused on personal controversies.
"My opponents have been trying to make this election about me," Obama said in Bloomington. "We don't know him. We don't know if he shares our values. We haven't seen him wear a flag pin lately. He's got a funny name. His former pastor said some terrible thing."
In parts of Southern Indiana — Indiana's Democratic "strongholds" where President Bush still got more than 60 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004 and where Clinton is strongest — those questions about Obama are real and widespread.
"A lot of people are just not comfortable with Obama. They were upset when that reverend talked and some were upset when Obama's wife said that about not being proud of America. They're asking about his religion," said 61-year-old Molly Rieckers, one of several white-haired ladies making phone calls for Clinton in the back of Dan's Cycle shop in Seymour the other day.
An overwhelmingly white industrial state like Indiana would seem like prime territory for Clinton, especially with Evan Bayh, the state's popular senator and former governor, throwing his political muscle behind her.
But Obama has advantages too: Roughly one in four voters are Obama's neighbors, Indianans who live in the Chicago television market; Indiana's population is younger than that of strongly pro-Clinton states like Ohio and Pennsylvania; as much as 12 percent of the electorate may be African-American; Republicans and independents, who have boosted Obama in prior contests, can vote in the Democratic primary.
Indiana hasn't backed a Democrat for president since 1964, and not since Robert Kennedy beat Eugene McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin in 1968 has Indiana had a truly hard-fought competitive Democratic presidential primary. In other words, nobody really knows what the electorate will look like on Tuesday.
The economy is the driving issue in this state with more manufacturing jobs than any other, and Clinton's stump speech — "jobs, jobs, jobs!" — is a 30-minute list of how she intends to help working families: end tax incentives to job exporters, get health insurance to 47-million uninsured, double college tax credits, start bringing the troops home from Iraq, take on OPEC, and declare a summer holiday from federal gas taxes and pay for it by taxing oil company profits.
"My opponent doesn't believe in giving you a gas tax holiday, and Sen. McCain believes in giving it but not paying for it,'' Clinton said in Princeton, touting her proposal, which is getting panned by economists and policy pundits.
Obama offers Indianans a broader pitch, promising "a different kind of politics," and in stump speeches and in TV ads blanketing the state, he casts her gas tax idea as a gimmick and an example of phony Washington politics.
"It's not going to be enough just to change political parties in the White House if we want to solve our problems. We've got to change how politics is done in Washington,'' Obama told factory workers in Indianapolis last week.
It's a point Obama has made to countless voters in dozens of states now.
But Margo Hinshaw, a 50-year-old IT administrator and undecided Democrat at the specialty metals factory, listened carefully. It's all new to her.
"There's been a lot said about Democrats needing to get their candidate settled already, but I don't think so at all,'' she said. "I'm grateful it's lasted long enough so that here in Indiana we finally have our votes count."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.