GARY, Ind. – It’s in the heart of a key battleground in Indiana’s Democratic primary Tuesday – this predominantly black steel city full of excited hope that carries a palpable nervous edge.
Barack Obama holds a major home court advantage here, where residents have watched the rise of his political career in Chicago, just a half-hour to the west across the state line.
Early in the nomination race, there were reservations about his general appeal, but that gave way to wonder with his triumphs in white states like Iowa, Vermont and Maine.
Now, with worries about a “white flight” of blue-collar voters who flocked to rival Hillary Clinton in Ohio and Pennsylvania, few hold back on their tense determination and potent desire to see Obama knock her out.
“Gary’s got his back,” retired day-care worker Dorothy Cowan declared outside a grocery store on Broadway Avenue, a once bustling central street where boarded windows reflect the painful decline of steel industry jobs.
“He really needs this vote to take Indiana. If he stays strong, he’ll be all right. I’m praying.”
Finally, a place that has viewed itself as an overlooked underdog for decades – where many buildings are burned out or crumbling to their foundations in a terrible tableau of crime and neglect – has a chance to make its mark on the nomination fight of a lifetime.
With Indiana’s generally reliable Republican leanings and a nomination primary coming too late to have an impact, residents haven’t been wooed by presidential contenders since Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1968.
Many African Americans in this struggling liberal northwestern pocket of a heavily conservative state aren’t taking anything for granted.
“They’re going to the polls this time, they’re not just talking,” says Julia Smith, a pharmacy technician.
“Now it seems like our voices are being heard.”
A win in Indiana would help Obama rebut Clinton’s argument she’s better placed to capture lower-income voters crucial to winning this fall’s general election against Republican John McCain.
Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, a staunch, vocal Obama supporter, is predicting that the galvanized grassroots movement in a city that’s part war zone, part ghost town will carry him to victory in the tight state contest.
There have already been complaints from Clinton supporters in nearby union towns along Lake Michigan who are angry that Gary has been using tax dollars to bus high school seniors to the county courthouse for early voting.
Clay is making no apologies.
Founded in 1906 by United States Steel Corp., Gary thrived until the industry started dropping workers in the 1960s.
The city of 100,000, which is more than 80 per cent African American, is plagued with some of the highest rates of violence and unemployment in the country.
Outside of the central capital of Indianapolis, populated by some 250,000 blacks, Gary is Obama’s best bet in a classic rural small-town state where the demographics are often overwhelmingly white.
In those areas, the angry anti-American outbursts from Obama’s ex-pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have threatened to tarnish the candidate’s image as the country’s first mainstream black candidate.
Indiana was once a major base for the Klu Klux Klan and several communities have a history of racial conflict – a troubling scenario at a juncture when race has become such a predominant issue.
“I don’t think a lot of people are ready for a black man,” said Angie Andrews, taking a break from her job as an attendant at a dry cleaners.
“I just hope people can overlook Wright. Obama ain’t got nothing to do with that.”
For Andrews, who’s in her 40s, Obama is nothing short of the reincarnation of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
She expects big things from him if he makes it to the White House, just not right away.
“Not in the first year, maybe the second year, maybe the third. He’s got to get fixed with the Congress.”
And she wants a lot more help for those left destitute.
“Without that, there will only be more crimes, more murders.”
While Obama hasn’t been in Gary since early April, his footprints are all over the city, said Arnold Finch, 28, who works as many shifts as he can get at Industrial Steel.
“He knows what we need. He wants to bring the gas prices down and make sure kids get more education. Clinton ain’t saying what we need in life.”
And if Obama becomes president?
“There will be a lot more open doors than shut doors. That’s what I pray for – a lot of change around here, and in every city and state.”
Obama has told voters in Gary that he’d end the Iraq war and use some of the money to help people like them.
And he’s blasted corporate executives making millions while workers are losing their pensions.
Throughout the northwest, he has been emphasizing his early work in southside Chicago communities that have been bashed hard by job losses.
Clinton, too, has campaigned hard in blue-collar towns around Gary, backed up by her husband Bill and daughter Chelsea, where her focus on creating jobs is resonating.
Smith, though, is unimpressed with her support of a gas tax holiday this summer, something Obama has called a “classic Washington gimmick” that wouldn’t keep prices down in the long term and would eat into a fund to repair bridges and roads.
“She’s just saying something to get voters,” said Smith. “She’s not thinking about how she’s going to do this.”
Obama, though, can’t count on every vote in Gary.
“I haven’t totally decided,” said LaCrisha Sims, 27, a graduate student.
“But I want to see a female president.”