How odd it looked last week to see thousands of Hoosiers flock to a noisy Sarah Palin rally in mid-October, in a state where dramatic, coming-down-the-stretch presidential campaigns are almost always distant events. Someone, it would seem, is messing with the clocks again in Indiana.
But there the Republican faithful were, cheering loudly for the vice presidential nominee, just as thousands of Democrats did a week earlier in Indianapolis for Barack Obama. A competitive race for president in Indiana is the political equivalent of a World Series in Wrigley Field: You have to be pretty old to remember the last time it happened.
That means trouble for Republicans, who have won every presidential election in Indiana since 1968 with an average of 61 percent of the vote. Grateful Indiana TV stations are broadcasting millions of dollars' worth of ads from the Obama campaign. And Indiana voters, most of whom weren't alive for the state's last presidential squeaker 60 years ago (Republican Thomas Dewey over Democrat Harry Truman by less than a percentage point), are amazed that candidates are coming to their state.
"The idea that this race is close and even being discussed is literally something new under the sun," said Robert Dion, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Evansville. "It's stunning."
Palin told the crowd of some 10,000 people at an outdoor music theater in Noblesville that the race "will come down to the wire and it's going to be very close."
"You know something about close races," Palin said, referring to the Indianapolis 500, "and you know how to sprint right to the finish line . . . and that's why I ask for your vote." The crowd responded with chants of "USA, USA" and "Drill, baby, drill."
Across the state, the Obama campaign has 44 field offices. In 2004, John Kerry had none. Jonathan Swain, communications director for Obama's Indiana campaign, said Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate to campaign in the state in October since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Swain said the state is very competitive, even in the culturally conservative south, and he expects Obama to visit again before Election Day.
McCain, in contrast, has no offices in the state and hasn't been here since July.
A compilation of polls by Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan group, shows McCain with a lead of 48.8 percent to 45 percent in Indiana -- a close enough margin that the state is considered a tossup.
Indiana, along with North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado, is among the Republican-leaning states unexpectedly in play in the presidential race.
The unusually intense interest in the Democratic primary and the large number of newly registered voters created a wellspring of Democratic support. The financial crisis helped reframe the priorities of the presidential campaign and drew attention to Indiana's economic struggles.