MUNCIE, Ind. - Barack Obama sees himself with a disadvantage in Pennsylvania and with an advantage in North Carolina. "So Indiana may end up being the tiebreaker," he said this week.
As he completes a four-day tour of the Hoosier state, that's the Illinois senator's assessment of the Democratic presidential contests in the coming three weeks.
For Obama, that's a tough call. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has single digit leads in the state, according to recent polls. She has the support of the state's popular Democratic senator, Evan Bayh. And the state has a sizable number of blue collar industrial workers, a demographic group that has leaned in her favor.
But Obama is from neighboring Illinois, and is well-known in the Indiana counties around Lake Michigan that have access to Chicago's media market. He also has the support of two respected former members of Congress from Indiana — Lee Hamilton and Tim Roemer.
Pennsylvania holds its primary April 22. Indiana and North Carolina hold theirs two weeks later. A two-out-of-three outcome in favor of the Illinois senator at the end of that stretch may not drive Clinton out of the race, but it will permit Obama to argue that after primary losses in Texas and Ohio, he can win an industrial state.
"If he wins Indiana, that's a pretty strong signal that he's probably going to secure the nomination in my view," said Rep. Baron Hill, an Indiana Democrat who has not endorsed either Clinton or Obama. Significantly, Hill is a superdelegate, one of nearly 800 party leaders and elected officials who could determine the nomination.
Obama has been pouring money into the state with ads and field offices. His bus tour this week is his longest stay in the state. He visited six of the state's nine congressional districts, packing high school gymnasiums and rousing audiences with a condemnation of Washington and special interests.
In many ways, Obama's message is no different from what he was delivering months ago in Iowa and New Hampshire. But he has spiced up his economic themes, adding a populist bite aimed at the very blue collar workers that have gravitated to Clinton in previous contests.
"Working class white males hold the balance of power," said Lawrence J. Hanks, a political scientist at Indiana University.
Roemer, the former congressman who has endorsed Obama, said he gave the Illinois senator a book on how Robert Kennedy won the Indiana primary in 1968
"I think he's reading it because the Kennedy battle plan was to go to the cities and get the big crowds, but also to make sure that you aggressively recruit the blue collar community and convey to hem all you have in common with them," Roemer said.
That message took a hit Friday. Clinton and Republicans accused Obama of being an out of touch elitist for stating, during a private meeting with California donors, that economic bitterness had driven some working class people to "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Obama modulated that assessment Friday night before an audience in Terre Haute:
"People end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. They take refuge in their faith and their community, and their family, and the things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington."
He added: "People are fed up, they are angry, they're frustrated and they're bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington."
But the criticism was not letting up as Republicans called on congressional Democrats to denounce Obama's remarks. And Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said Obama should have apologized. "The Americans who live in small towns are optimistic, hardworking and resilient," he said. "They deserve a president who will respect them."
On the stump, Obama can get his share of advice. "You need to smile more," one man told him in Columbus. He's also heard some awkward praise: "I want to compliment you on you grammar," one woman told him.
In this state, voters seem delighted that they matter. Few believed that the presidential contest would still be undecided in May. But the ongoing campaign has given some voters the time to make up their minds.
"I didn't think he was for real," said Ramon Gerber, a 67-year-old retiree from Columbus. "So young and so fresh. So I thought, well, he looks nice and sounds nice, but I wasn't sure. But I think I'm sure enough to vote for him."
As for winning two out of three, Hanks, the Indiana University political scientist, believes Obama needs to win in states where he is favored and stay within 10 points in states where he is not. That would be enough to sustain his edge over Clinton in delegates, states won and the popular vote.
"The Clinton strategy is to construct a basis for winning without the big three — most states won, most delegates, and greater number of voters," he said. "In this sense, there is no tiebreaker."