INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Democrats typically skip right over reliably Republican Indiana when plotting presidential campaign strategy.
Not Barack Obama.
The candidate from next-door Illinois is bidding to flip the state into the Democratic column this year.
To that end, he is doing what no presidential candidate has done in decades - spending significant amounts of money and time in the state, while Republican John McCain maintains a low profile.
Obama narrowly lost the May primary here to Hillary Rodham Clinton. And in the process, he had "the opportunity to at least define himself with Hoosier voters and that has lingered," said Kip Tew, a former state Democratic chairman who is a volunteer adviser to the Obama campaign. "They competed with a ground game that no one's ever seen in the state."
Indiana, with 11 electoral votes, is one of only a handful of states where Obama's advertising has been unanswered by McCain. The Democrat has 32 offices across the state and dozens of paid staffers. His campaign spent about $6 million on television advertising in Indiana leading up to the May primary and has aired at least $1.5 million in TV ads since June.
Obama has made five stops in the state since mid-July, and running mate Joe Biden was returning to the state Wednesday.
The McCain campaign, by contrast, is nearly invisible. It has no field offices or paid staffers working full-time in the state, and McCain hasn't visited the state since July 1. Republicans were expected to respond to Obama's ad presence in the state with ads of their own later this week.
Both candidates know history is not on Obama's side: For more than a generation, Indiana has been colored in for the GOP nominee soon after polls start closing. George W. Bush won with 60 percent in 2004 and 57 percent in 2000, and the state last went Democratic in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide.
But Jessie Bochert, 45, who runs a business preparing houses for sale from her home in Granger, shows why Obama thinks he may have an opening in the state. Bochert, who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, initially supported McCain but switched to Obama and began volunteering for his campaign.
"I feel guilty for all that has happened" under Bush, she said. "There are so many people I talk to, they can't afford their prescriptions, they don't know what to pay, they can't afford anything. It's really the economy, and that's what it's coming down to."
Republican Tim Surber said he believes McCain appeals to Indiana voters because of his military background and his push for more offshore oil drilling. Surber, 49, who runs a computer consulting office in Indianapolis, thinks McCain got a big boost among Indiana conservatives when he chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Still, he worries about the McCain campaign's low-key approach.
"I know they feel like it's a state they're going to win," he said. "I really wish Palin would come in, I wish McCain would come in. ... They need to at least let us know that they know we're out here."
Public polls taken this month show the two candidates running about even or McCain slightly ahead.
Republicans say the numbers reflect the state's conservative-leaning voters and validate their approach, which involves working through state and county-level organizations to build support for McCain.
"Given the millions of dollars and months of staff time that Senator Obama has spent here, you question whether or not he ought to be doing a little better," said Luke Messer, the co-chairman of McCain's Indiana campaign and a former state GOP executive director. "They were polling in May at 43, 44 percent and that's essentially where they remain."
But Democrats are buoyed by how close the race is. They note that three incumbent Republican congressmen lost re-election bids two years ago, and say the state's struggling economy makes voters more receptive to Obama. The state's unemployment rate hit 6.4 percent in August, up nearly 2 percentage points from a year earlier.
An increase of more than 425,000 new voter registrations since the 2006 election, and Obama's name recognition in northwestern Indiana, a heavily Democratic area where more than 10 percent of the state's voters see Chicago TV stations, also could help.
But to win Indiana, Obama also must consolidate the support of Democrats in rural areas and the blue-collar factory towns that strongly backed Clinton in May.
Messer, the McCain campaign's state leader, said Obama faces an uphill fight in many parts of the state where Republicans are well organized. Several Obama campaign offices are in counties where most Republicans are unopposed in local races on the election ballot. No Democrat other than Sen. Evan Bayh has won a statewide race since 2000.
"We're more interested in winning an election than putting on a show," Messer said.
Tew, the Obama adviser, said it would take a significant strategy shift for McCain to more actively campaign in the state.
"If they start to compete in Indiana then it's an admission that there's another state in play that they didn't think was ever going to be in play," Tew said. "If they don't compete in Indiana, then they're in danger of losing it. So they're in a box."