Indiana Republicans took their first presidential loss in 40 years when Barack Obama carried the rock-ribbed GOP state. They're not about to let it happen again if they can help it.
To return the state to the GOP column and nail it there, national Republicans say they plan to treat Indiana as if it were a long-standing battleground state. State Republicans hope to recreate the excitement that fired up underdog Indiana Democrats in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigned extensively throughout the state in a lengthy primary battle that dragged through May, creating a buzz that lasted until the general election.
By contrast, GOP nominee John McCain largely took Indiana for granted, focusing his energy on actual battleground states. Obama won the state in November by a little more than 30,000 votes.
Now the state is fairly crawling with GOP candidates.
The state party has sponsored four presidential forums since August. Those events brought Republican candidates like pizza magnate Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Ambassador to China John Huntsman to Indiana and helped add 1,000 names to the party's e-mail list, party spokesman Pete Seat said.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whose YouTube videos about the budget crisis have given him a high profile, headlined the state party's fall fundraiser with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus last Friday. Cain visited the exclusive Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis at the same time.
"It's nice that we're getting this kind of attention, it's creating interest in the election," Garry Petersen said last week, before listening to Perry speak to roughly 300 Republicans at the Columbia Club. Petersen and his wife, Terri, have long been active in Indiana Republican politics and said this is the most attention the state has gotten from Republican presidential candidates since the early 1980s.
"Our responsibility is to take care of our backyard here and to make sure that Indiana is fired up. We have a network of folks that are willing to sacrifice their time and just make sure that Barack Obama is one and done," Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said.
Obama was the first Democrat to win Indiana since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And even though they voted three separate Democratic governors into office in the intervening years, Hoosiers voters so reliably went for whomever the Republicans offered nationally for 44 years.
That near-certainty that any Republican presidential nominee would carry the state made both sides complacent until Obama's win in 2008. It has sent some of the most conservative representatives to Congress, including Dan Burton, Dan Coats and Dan Quayle, who was vice president under President George H.W. Bush.
To keep Indiana's reputation for producing conservative wins, the RNC plans to begin sending staffers and money to Indiana in the spring, said Rick Wiley, RNC political director. Republicans learned a hard lesson in Indiana in 2008 when they waited until after McCain's nomination had been locked up to begin organizing their campaign, he said.
"We're going to treat it as a battleground state. We're going to treat as though we're running behind in the state," Wiley said Tuesday. He would not say how much the national party plans to spend in the state or how many full-time staff they will pay to work there.
For its part, the Obama campaign is touting a continued staff presence in Indiana that has been maintained since Obama took office. The re-election effort has maintained between two and four full-time staffers in Indiana since 2008, according to an Indiana Democratic source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Obama campaign does not want to release campaign staff numbers.
Those staffers have been running phone banks and helping the state's Democratic mayoral candidates, the source said. The Obama campaign is running weekly phone banks from the state Democratic party headquarters every Tuesday, according to the campaign website.
Obama's Indiana supporters say even if the president loses Indiana next year they are optimistic the network they built in 2008 has scared Republicans enough to at least draw away resources from other battleground states.
"I think they better" campaign hard in Indiana, said Kip Tew, a former Indiana Democratic Party chairman who led Obama's Indiana efforts in 2008. "They didn't the last time and they lost, so they probably learned a lesson."
In the meantime, both parties are using Indiana's statewide municipal elections as training ahead of next year's battle. Indiana Republicans have held four training sessions with mayoral candidates and volunteers, sending out executive director Justin Garrett to lead the events throughout the state.
"It's a long road ahead of us," GOP state chairman Holcomb said. "We need to take nothing for granted and make sure that Indiana turns red."