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In Indiana, ripples of discontent with Obama

Since her husband lost his job at the RV factory, Lorena Rodriguez has been holding tag sales on the dry lawn outside their modest ranch house on the edge of town. As she hawked her four children’s outgrown clothing and bicycles on a recent Friday afternoon, Rodriguez said the family had to turn to food stamps briefly to get by. And even though her husband, Daniel, recently found work, they still struggle to pay the bills.

“It’s still pretty tough,” said the 28-year-old.

All this has deeply colored her opinion of President Obama, whom she supported in 2008.

“He promised so many things. He hasn’t done anything,” said Rodriguez, an independent voter who said she would not side with Obama in 2012. “We had thought he would really help us, but we haven’t seen much from him.”

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Among the states that supported Obama in 2008, Indiana was one of the least likely — he was the first Democratic nominee to win the state in 44 years, defeating Republican John McCain by less than 1 percentage point. Strategists in both parties say Indiana is the state he is least likely to hold on to in 2012, largely because of shifts in sentiment by working-class voters like Rodriguez.

Dissatisfaction among those voters, most notably women, could also hamper Obama’s efforts in other vital states in the Midwest. Polling in recent months shows that working-class Americans — already skeptical of the president — have grown increasingly hostile to him, and enthusiasm among women is also waning.

Obama lavished unprecedented attention on Indiana during the 2008 campaign, visiting the state dozens of times and spending millions. He aired ads in Illinois — unnecessarily, because he knew he would romp in his home state — so those next door in northwest Indiana would see his message.

The courtship did not stop once the president took office — he has visited six times in less than three years. Obama’s first trip as president outside the Washington area was to Elkhart, to pitch the economic stimulus. The area is Republican-leaning, but 1,700 people packed a high school gym to hear the president speak.

At the time, Elkhart County had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, at almost 20%. Now that percentage has been cut in half because the RV industry has begun to rebound, but some say the city’s spirit remains broken.

“It’s [gotten] a little better, but not very fast,” said Dave Slayton, 57, a bartender at the Lakeshore Grill who supported Obama in 2008 and plans to do so again. “There’s a lot less crying” at the bar.

Lynn VanHusan, 57, the owner of a beauty parlor called Salon Headlines, disagrees and calls the situation “awful.”

“We need jobs,” she said."I don’t encourage the president to get on a plane and come here again. Take that tens of thousands of dollars and put people to work.”

All around Elkhart is the collateral damage of years of economic decline.

Rebah Price, 32, who has a master’s degree in business and human resources, was recently laid off from her job managing a clothing store and is seeking work as a secretary. Karen Peffley, 49, used to work with adults with special needs; after she was laid off, she took a part-time job at the Family Dollar store. Ninety percent of the customers she rings up are using welfare and food stamp cards.

Even small signs of recovery are tentative. Baker Adam Harrison, 37, said his business “sky-dived without a parachute” in 2009. Demand for wedding cakes has rebounded, he said, but brides are forgoing ornate multi-tiered concoctions in favor of simpler two-layer offerings or cheap sheet cake.

Mary McHugh, a physical therapist in her mid-50s, said she supported McCain in 2008, but many of her clients and colleagues supported Obama.

“A lot of middle-aged women and hard-working, middle-class people, they were struggling, and he just came in and dazzled them. Everyone thought he was going to wave a magic wand,” said McHugh, sitting in VanHusan’s salon. “I don’t think they’ll support Obama again. They’re looking for an option. They’re looking for someone for president who has some experience in business.”

Unlike in decades past, neither party is taking the state for granted as 2012 approaches.

The Obama campaign has held more than 250 events around the state since the president formally kicked off his reelection bid in April, including voter registration efforts, house parties and gatherings in celebration of Obama’s 50th birthday. The campaign has had paid staff on the ground for months.

Several times a week, volunteers gather around the state to call voters who backed Obama in 2008, to try to convince them to reengage. Cheryl Laux of Danville spends between 25 and 30 hours a week volunteering in the Democratic Party’s Indianapolis headquarters, and has made thousands of phone calls to former supporters.

Wearing an “I’m In” button, the 60-year-old patiently tapped out phone numbers on her iPhone, urging people who actively supported Obama in 2008 to volunteer again. She acknowledged that 2012 would be a battle, but she insisted that even those who were skeptical would come around once they were reminded of Obama’s successes during the last three years, such as healthcare benefits that kick in after the election.

“It will be a fight,” Laux said, “but I do think an awful lot of people support the president.… We have a pretty good list of accomplishments.”

In 2008, McCain was faulted for paying too little attention to the Hoosier State, following a tradition of candidates in years past. That is not the case this time around. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is scheduled to visit the state, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and businessman Herman Cain have already visited.

“The road to the White House goes through the heartland in 2012, and that means straight through Indiana, no matter what road you’re on,” said Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb.

But for some residents, the politicking comes too late. Price, the former businesswoman who now can’t find a secretarial job, and her husband, Sunrise, say they don’t bother to vote because they don’t see the point.

“It seems like no matter who the president is … ain’t nothing changed,” Sunrise Price said. “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and we’re stuck in the middle.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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