By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
GARY, Ind. (AP) — Barack Obama was the first Democrat in 44 years to win Indiana in the 2008 presidential race. A repeat coup seems doubtful this year.
Even Democrats see the current political environment in this conservative-leaning state as far more challenging. The economy is still struggling, Republicans have made steady gains in state and federal elections in the past four years and the regional pride that came with voting for a senator from a neighboring state — Obama is from Illinois — is all but gone.
Longtime Sen. Richard Lugar's loss to tea party-backed Richard Mourdock in the GOP Senate primary gives some Democrats hope that Indiana could become more competitive by November. But for now at least, it appears most likely to be scratched off the list of states in Obama's 2008 win column.
"None of the factors that helped him in 2008 are going to be there this time," said Kip Tew, an Indianapolis lawyer who chaired Obama's statewide campaign when he became the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to carry Indiana.
The former Illinois senator did it by making nearly 50 trips to the state, mostly to prepare for the grueling primary fight against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama lost the primary, but his expansive campaign organization lifted him to a narrow win over Republican John McCain in the general election.
Obama successfully appealed to huge swaths of minorities in the northwest part of the state that borders his hometown of Chicago, and the legions of young voters who attend the state's many colleges and universities.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said black voters could again make the difference for Obama in Indiana. But she and other Democrats worry that the campaign has decided not to fight for the state.
"My concern is that the campaign does not simply write Indiana off," said Freeman-Wilson, a Democrat and Obama supporter. "I've been telling them for the past six months: Don't count us out, give us a chance, don't write us off."
Obama aides try to lower expectations about winning Indiana again, calling the state a unique opportunity in 2008 and suggesting it's not high on the priority list this time. Of the three historically conservative states Obama won that year, aides see the other two — North Carolina and Virginia — as more competitive given the favorable changes in voting and demographic patterns there as compared to Indiana.
Indeed, there is no evidence that Obama is competing in Indiana.
His re-election campaign has been under way for more than a year, yet he has just one campaign office in the state and has spent no money on advertising. He also has not visited since last May. Obama did, however, dispatch Vice President Joe Biden to a private fundraiser last month, a quiet affair held at the home of Democratic National Committeewoman Ann Bochnowski, in heavily Democratic northwest Indiana. Biden held no public event during the visit.
Still, the state's stubbornly high unemployment rate makes it unfriendly territory for Obama. It's 7.9 percent statewide, slightly lower than a year ago and slightly below the national average. Joblessness is even higher, at nearly 10 percent, in Lake County, Ind., where Obama's overwhelming support from blacks was seen as pivotal four years ago.
At the same time, Republicans have increased their influence throughout the state.
Many Indiana voters split their tickets in 2008, re-electing Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels by 17 percentage points while Obama carried the state by just 1 percentage point. Daniels' job-approval rating stands in the 60s, while Obama's approval in the state is in the 40s.
In 2010, Republicans won big majorities in the Statehouse, and Republicans edged Democrats in Indiana's U.S. House delegation. Republican Dan Coats also was elected to the U.S. Senate to succeed retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat.
The following year, Republicans won a majority of mayoral races for the first time.
"In 2008, Barack Obama was a propeller in Indiana," state GOP Chairman Eric Holcomb said. "Today, he's an anchor."
That's in part because perceptions about Obama also have changed.
"He made too many mistakes," retired steelworker Roland Lewis said during a recent shopping trip with his wife in Merrillville, a racially diverse northwest Indiana suburb. Lewis voted for Obama but said he won't again in November. "No more on-the-job training," he said.
Lewis referred specifically to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms losing track of hundreds of firearms in a flawed gun-tracking operation. Some of the firearms eventually were recovered from crime scenes, including in Nogales, Ariz., where a U.S. border agent was slain in 2010.
In Valparaiso, Ind., Judith Bucko said she doubted she'd vote for Obama a second time. She said she was turned off by his decision requiring religious-affiliated employers, including Catholic hospitals, to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. Bucko said she also wasn't swayed when Obama tweaked the rule to require insurance companies to provide contraceptive benefits directly to employees.
"He's a good and decent man. But this whole thing with health care, forcing Catholic hospitals to give birth control ... I'd like to support him, but I don't know if I'll be able to," said Bucko, who is Catholic.
Romney is supported by the state's GOP establishment, including Daniels, and his team insists it won't fall for Obama's efforts to force Romney to defend a state that has voted Republican in presidential elections for more than a generation.
Obama's team, meanwhile, is watching Indiana closely to see if the race to succeed Lugar can help Obama.
National Democrats now say they will help three-term Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat with a centrist record, knock off tea party-backed Mourdock, who defeated Lugar. The theory is that a strong-performing Democratic House candidate could help improve the landscape for Obama.
Said veteran Democratic presidential adviser Tad Devine: "I would say if there's a Senate race which suddenly comes into play, the Obama campaign may decide they want to try to compete there."
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