Monday, May 05, 2008

On The Ground In Indiana: Gas Prices, Clinton Fatigue Mix In Days Before Voting

CLARKSVILLE, Ind. -- As she took a break from cleaning the soda display windows early Sunday morning in this southern Indiana city just off Interstate 65 north of Louisville, Ky. Sherry Cheatham said the No. 1 issue among people she talks to (no surprise here) is the price of gas.

But she said it is striking to see the depth of people's frustration, up close and personal, hour after hour. She said customers are "real mad."

And often they they vent on her, blame the 51-year-old full-time clerk for the prices set much higher up the food chain than behind the counter here, where Cheatham spend her days clocking in hours and making change -- as well as serving up a generous side order of pleasant conversation.

Do customers take their anger out on her?

"Oh yeah, every day," she said.

On Tuesday, voters in the Hoosier will have a major voice in the Democratic presidential primary process -- and gas prices, along with the competing proposals from U.S. Sens. Barack Obama, Ill., and Hillary Clinon, N.Y., are factoring heavily into the campaign here.

It's easy to see why when it costs more than $60 to fill up a Toyota Avalon.

Judging by the conversations she has every day, Cheatham said, this southern Indiana area is decidedly Hillary Clinton country.

"They seem to be really leaning toward her," Cheatham.

Cheatham, who prefers Barack Obama, said the unfortunate truth is that race plays a major role in this part of the state.

"I think it is said he may not win because of the prejudice," she said.

Farther north on Interstate 65, in the southern reaches of Indianapolis, Jody Cook, 42, an employee of the circulation department at The Indianapolis Star, waited with her family to eat at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. She had a chance to shake hands with both Clinton and Obama as they made editorial appearance at the newspaper.

"I liked Obama personally," Cook said. "Obama has a really good charisma."

A few seats down in an outdoor waiting area Susan Tissot, a retired nurse, said Obama will be the first presidential candidate she votes for since Richard Nixon.

"He's not old money and he's not old politics," Tissot said.

Across the street in this gaggle of off-interstate restaurants and hotels, Brandon Shipp, a 27-year-old assistant manager at the Jameson Inn, said he likes Republican presidential candidate John McCain in the general election. But he's worked for Obama in the Democratic primary here.

"McCain's got it locked up so there is nothing you can do," Shipp said.

He's not gaming the system. Shipp, an independent voter who leans conservative, just can't stand the thought to Clinton in the White House.

"I just don't personally like her," Shipp said.

In volunteering for Obama, Shipp said he canvassed homes in a typically middle class neighborhood of southern Indianapolis. It was split among Democrats and Republicans, but the Democrats leaned toward Obama.

As he sat taking a break on his car in a motel parking lot outside of Indianapolis. Tovian Watson, 31, who works in auto detailing, said his sense of the race is that that Obama is the object of over-the-top criticism about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other issues.

"I think they're just going at Obama too hard," Watson said.

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