Early voting in Indiana could offer some encouragement to presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who needs a victory in its upcoming primary after a tough few weeks on the campaign trail.
Obama victories in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on May 6 could help him regain momentum in his nomination fight against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama has been on the defensive because of comments by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and his own comments about people in small towns growing bitter.
About 20 percent of the 127,000-plus absentee ballots received as of early Friday were cast in three Indiana counties — Marion, Monroe and Lake — that political observers believe Obama is strongly favored to win.
Lake County has a large population of black voters and is in Chicago's shadow. Obama has typically won big among college-age voters, and Monroe County is the home of Indiana University in Bloomington. Obama's campaign sought out IU students with voter registration and early voting drives and a free Dave Matthews concert.
Robert Dion, a professor of American politics at the University of Evansville, said Obama has mounted an innovative campaign that's stressed early voting and his supporters appear more energized than those for Clinton.
"In a close race, modest advantages in organization can yield big results, and if Obama out-organizes the Clinton campaign on these absentee ballots, it would be a great boost to him," Dion said.
Three other Indiana counties — St. Joseph, Vanderburgh and Vigo counties — have amassed more than 20,000 early ballots between them, about 16 percent of the total absentees cast statewide.
Vigo County, which includes Terre Haute, is expected to go for Clinton because of its demographics and connections to popular Sen. Evan Bayh, who has campaigned aggressively with the former first lady.
Political analyst Robert Schmuhl said he senses that Clinton has the advantage heading into Tuesday's primary.
"I think any objective observer would say Senator Clinton has the momentum going into the last few days. In previous primaries she's done well during the final days as the undecided voters have made up their minds," the Notre Dame professor said.
Whatever Tuesday's final vote, Dion said Obama and Clinton are expected to basically split the state's 72 delegates.
"They're fighting over bragging rights," Dion said. "If he wins Indiana as well as North Carolina, which we expect him to win, he can say, 'I won both states.' And that's going to knock the wind out of Hillary Clinton."