As the site of the next Democratic presidential contest, Indiana finds itself in an unaccustomed position: the political spotlight.
Along with North Carolina, Indiana holds its Democratic primary on May 6. Both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned in the state on Friday.
And both candidates stressed the state's importance. Obama told Hoosiers that their votes could be the "tie-breaker" in the Democratic race, while Clinton said Indiana may ultimately decide who becomes the next president.
The state seems tailor-made for a vital political role: Known as the "crossroads of America," Indiana has more interstate highway miles per square mile than any other state (which is convenient for campaigning).
With its presidential primary taking on national importance for the first time in 40 years, a closer look at the state seems in order.
A Manufacturing Haven
Despite producing much corn, soybeans and livestock, Indiana's agriculture is not the driving force of the state's economy.
"If you want to characterize Indiana relative to the nation, we are a manufacturing state, not a farm state," said Don Coffin, economics professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.
Standing in downtown Gary, in the shadow of the massive U.S. Steel Gary Works plant, Coffin said, "This is sort of the epicenter of what has been the core of the northwestern Indiana economy."
Northwest Indiana still produces tons of steel — in fact, more tons today than ever before... but the mills do it with fewer workers. They employ about 20,000 people today, compared to a peak of around 100,000 workers 40 years ago.
Since 1970, Coffin says, the industrial cities along Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline — Gary, Hammond, Whiting, and East Chicago — have lost about 40 percent of their population.
"Lakefront cities have been extremely hard hit," Coffin said. "[They've been] in decline for 30-40 years."
That makes the area a less powerful voting block than it was. But it is still significant for Democrats — as indicated by Clinton's plan to meet with steelworkers in Gary on Friday.
Issue #1: The Economy
Indiana is also prominent in the auto industry. Historically, it is second only to neighboring Michigan. The state is dotted all over with factory towns: Fort Wayne, Muncie, New Albany, Kokomo, Anderson — where Obama campaigned Friday.
But the towns have been bleeding jobs. All across the state, the economy is the No. 1 issue to Indiana voters.
"People are worried, people are struggling," said Gina Morris of Indianapolis. "They really are. Two-income households, it doesn't really matter at this point."
Morris works for a Medicaid provider.
"I know people who have lost their jobs. It's hard to find a job," she said.
In 1968, the average family income in Indiana was 5-to-10 percent above the national average. Today, it's 5-to-10 percent below the national average.
Advantages for Both Clinton, Obama
In presidential elections, Indiana is usually seen as a red state — at least for the past 40 years. But for statewide office, Indiana often elects Democrats.
Sen. Evan Bayh won his last election with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Democrats held the governor's office for 20 straight years, until 2004. Democrats control the Indiana House and now hold five of the state's nine seats in Congress.
Some say that success may rest on a particular brand of Democratic ideology.
"The Democratic Party in Indiana is a conservative party, really," said Margaret Ferguson, who teaches political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
"Being a Democrat in Indiana is not the same thing as being a Democrat in New York or Vermont," Ferguson said.
That conservative bent would seem to benefit Clinton, who has done best in rural, blue-collar states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
But Indiana is also next door to Obama's home state of Illinois. In fact, his home on Chicago's South Side is just a couple of miles from the Indiana state line.
"People who live up there get almost all their news from Chicago, their television; they're in that market," Ferguson said.
That fact, taken with the large number of African-American voters in Gary and Indianapolis — and the fact that Indiana's primary may attract independents — makes it fertile ground for Obama.
"It's going to be off the hook here on Election Day," said Amos Brown, who hosts an afternoon talk show on Indianapolis radio station WTLC.
"When I hit the air at 1, the phones light up like a Christmas tree," Brown said.
Brown says his audience and voters across the state are enjoying their rare moment in the national political spotlight, and having Washington and the media pay attention to their issues.
The renewed interest, Brown said, could mean that the Democratic winner of Indiana's primary could prove in November that Indiana isn't so red after all.