ELISE AMENDOLA / AP Enlarge
JAE C. HONG / AP Enlarge
INDIANAPOLIS - The state better known for basketball than barnstorming witnessed politics at its most frenzied over the weekend as the race to Indiana's primary and the Democratic presidential nomination reached a fevered pitch.
Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were back in the state Saturday, making late pitches with their supporters as the candidates battle to the wire for Indiana's 72 delegates on Tuesday's primary.
Both candidates see Indiana as a potential turning point. Obama, who has a lead in delegates, hopes to wrap up the nomination with wins in Indiana and North Carolina Tuesday, while Clinton wants to keep her candidacy alive.
Polls point toward a close race in Indiana, a state that even some of Clinton's supporters concede is critical to her campaign. It has been four decades since Indiana's late primary was in play during a presidential campaign, but now it's drawing national and international attention as a potential pivotal contest in the Democratic race.
"It's great for the party to be a battleground state for the first time in 40 years," said state Democratic Chairman Dan Parker, who is backing Clinton.
Former longtime Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, who was making campaign stops in southern Indiana on behalf of Obama on Saturday and planned more Sunday, said, "The eyes of the world are on Indiana this Tuesday and certainly the eyes of the nation."
Obama, joined by his wife Michelle and their daughters Malia and Sasha, spoke in Indianapolis on Saturday and planned more stops in Noblesville, Kempton and Lafayette.
Bill Clinton was making a swing through six northern Indiana cities. He planned to join his wife and their daughter Chelsea for a rally Saturday night in Indianapolis featuring a performance by Hoosier rocker John Mellencamp.
Actors and actresses were stumping for the candidates, including Rob Reiner, Ted Danson and Sean Astin for Clinton. Women for Obama planned a Saturday night "get-out-the-vote" rally at an Indianapolis mall featuring actress Jessica Lange.
Former Democratic U.S. House leader Richard Gephardt was making campaign stops for Clinton, as was Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who campaigned hard for her in the Ohio primary she won. Gov. Tim Kaine of Virgina, a state Obama won, was campaigning for him.
Even an out-of-state legislator was involved. Massachusetts state Sen. Marc Pacheco made some stops on behalf of Clinton, which included talking to average folks on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.
Sporting a button that said "Real men vote for Hillary Clinton," he urged Michelle Clendenning of Kokomo to vote for Clinton because "she is a person who means what she says and does what she says."
Clendenning, 29, sitting outside a Starbucks coffee shop, said neither candidate had won her over.
"It's just really hard to decipher with all the negativity that's in the press," she said.
Both campaigns said there were extensive canvassing efforts being made across the state.
One in an Indianapolis neighborhood began with a "Barack Block Party" organized by Hope Tribble, 43. There was popcorn was available from a popper, hot dogs, music, and folks blowing up red, white and blue balloons to distribute as they went door to door.
Tribble said she supported Obama because of his integrity.
Linda Matson of Xenia, Ohio, said she saw the event posted on an Obama Web site and decided to come and knock on doors through Monday. She said she voted for Clinton in the Ohio primary, but later got dismayed with her "because I felt she was very negative."
On Sunday, Clinton will be the guest on ABC's "This Week" morning show, while Obama will be on NBC's "Meet the Press." Both shows are being broadcast from Indianapolis.
The weekend of political frenzy was to culminate Sunday night at the Indiana Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner at the Indiana Convention Center. Clinton, Obama and Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean are all scheduled to speak to a crowd of about 2,300.
WASHINGTON - Republicans can hardly contain their glee as they watch Barack Obama battle through a rocky period. And why should they?
Nothing else is breaking the GOP's way this year. But, at least now, the Democrats' political phenom is tarnished, and, if he defeats Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he will enter the general election campaign not only bruised and battered but also carrying baggage as he faces Republican John McCain.
"We've had a rough couple of weeks. I won't deny that," Obama said Friday.
The Illinois senator has repeatedly had to address and repudiate the ranting of his bombastic former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama has continued facing questions about his relationship with indicted Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko. The candidate's patriotism has been questioned. So has his readiness.
On the eve of a critical Pennsylvania primary, Obama caught flak for claiming that small-town folks are bitter and thus cling to guns and religion. Then he turned in a lackluster debate performance. He ended up losing that primary to Clinton in part because he didn't attract enough white, working-class voters.
Now he finds himself in the midst of competitive contests in two more states. Losses Tuesday in Indiana and North Carolina would further weaken him. Even if he manages to hold off Clinton in those and the final primary contests, Obama would essentially limp to the nomination.
"The bark is stripped off him a little bit," said Reed Galen, a Republican who worked on President Bush's campaigns. "Are the folks on the Republican side of the aisle happy to let Hillary do that? Absolutely."
Among Republicans and Democrats alike, Obama's turbulent time is raising questions about why he can't seem to put away Clinton after a 16-month primary fight and whether Obama in his first hard-fought race is prepared not only to go up against McCain this fall but also to withstand the rigors of the White House.
Republicans hope Obama will be damaged goods come the general election and McCain will have a stronger shot at hanging onto the White House in an extraordinarily difficult political environment. Most Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance and think the country is on the wrong track, while the Iraq war continues and the economy bears down on if it's not already in a recession.
The GOP now sees a glimmer of light a variety of Obama vulnerabilities they can try to exploit if he is the nominee.
One prominent Democrat who backs Clinton recognized as much.
Last week, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh raised the possibility that the GOP will use Obama's association with Wright to try to destroy his character in a general election as the pro-Republican group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did to Democrat John Kerry in 2004. Said Bayh: "I'm sure the far right will be out there trying to do the whole 'Swift Boat' thing."
Already, Republicans are testing a theory that Obama could be a liability for Democrats down-ballot, running ads in special congressional races that linked the Democratic candidate to Obama in hopes of helping the Republican candidate.
It didn't work in Louisiana. The Democrat, Don Cazayoux, won Saturday anyway. Underscoring the GOP's challenge this year, Democrats won the seat that Republicans have held since 1974.
Phil Musser, a Republican strategist who backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's GOP presidential bid, said of Obama's woes: "These are very damaging self-inflicted wounds and may heal over with a lot of happy talk at the Democratic convention, but may be re-exposed in the fall campaign."
Indeed, GOP operatives are intently watching the Democratic primary fight to see how to push Obama's buttons. They also hope Obama's missteps and losses have alienated key general election constituencies or at least planted negative impressions with them that will last into the fall.
"Each time that Clinton racks up a victory in these blue-collar-type states, it shows that Obama's really losing the Reagan Democrats, which gives Republicans great comfort and a great strategy go after those Reagan Democrats," said John Feehery, a Republican who formerly worked for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Democrats dismiss any notion that the damage will be lasting. They counter that six months is plenty of time for Obama to bounce back, and they argue it is unrealistic to imagine Obama would have gotten through his first ever rough-and-tumble campaign unscathed.
"It hasn't been a great couple weeks, but some of these problems were going to emerge anyway, and it's better that it happened now than in the fall," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for Kerry's campaign and is unaligned in the primary. He said Obama has gone through a "learning period" and that will benefit him in fall if he is the nominee.
Added Erik Smith, a Democrat and former aide to Dick Gephardt: "There's something to be said for getting this stuff behind him, and not having any October surprises."38.89037 -77.03196