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Local observers looking forward to seeing Obama, Romney finally face each other on the same stage

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GREENFIELD — The presidential race isn’t hitting as close to home as it was four years ago, but local election watchers are still looking forward to the first debate tonight between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Domestic policy, including the economy, health care and the role of government, will be highlighted in the 9 p.m. debate from Denver, which will be televised on multiple channels. In 2008, the campaigns were active in Indiana as the debates approached. Polls showed Indiana was going to be a swing state, and it indeed would tilt into the Democrats’ column for the first time in more than 40 years.

This time around, local political experts note how little attention the state is attracting, because polls show Romney likely will win here.

So, while a lot of voters already have made up their minds, the debate series that begins tonight has local observers eager to see how their favorite candidate will fare.

Kelly McClarnon, a Democrat and former longtime member of the Greenfield City Council, predicts that Obama will tout his accomplishments over the past four years. Romney, he thinks, will have to start laying out specific ideas in order to win the debate and cut into the incumbent’s lead in national polls.

“(Obama’s) argument is, ‘Give me another four years. Things have turned around enough to warrant a second term,’” McClarnon said. “With Romney, there are no specifics at all. There just aren’t. And that’s a real problem for him.”

Still, McClarnon doesn’t believe Obama has done enough to turn the nation’s economy around. But he said the president could blame that on a lack of cooperation from Congress.

Health-care reform will also be an interesting topic tonight, McClarnon said. Candidates will have to defend “Obamacare,” a term given to national health care reform under Obama; and “Romneycare,” which Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts.

Local tea party activists say national health-care reform is at the heart of their concerns for the next four years.

“I think Romney needs to point out what our country is going to be like (if Obama is re-elected),” said Janet  Smith, president of the Greenfield Area Tea Party. “He’s been in office now almost four years, and his policies have not only not turned it around, but made it worse.”

Smith was the local McCain/Palin campaign organizer four years ago, when the campaigns flooded the state with money for everything from television advertising to yard signs. This year, Smith said, little campaign material has been allotted for Indiana.

Still, the tea party group has purchased bumper stickers and a few signs to give out.

She said 500 Romney yard signs were provided by the presidential campaign to Indiana’s entire 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Muncie to the Ohio River. She’s not sure whether Hancock County, a heavily Republican county, will get some of those.

Janice Silvey, chair of the Hancock County Republican Party, said phone banks have been operating for Republican congressional candidate Luke Messer. During those canvassing calls, she said, callers also ask about the presidential race. Silvey said she was surprised that even though the conservative tea party movement across the country has a strong foothold here, many of the people she talked to still support Obama.

Silvey is also working on getting Romney yard signs for Hancock County.

Smith participated in a local phone bank last week with Americans for Prosperity, a national political advocacy group. She said much of the work at the local level is tying U.S. Senate hopeful Joe Donnelly to Obama. Tea party advocates have long supported Republican Richard Mourdock for the seat. Mourdock defeated Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary.

Randy Harrison, president of the Tea Party of Hancock County, said his group is sending out door-to-door volunteers and holding phone banks for Mourdock. He agreed the presidential race isn’t resonating as much here this year. But that doesn’t mean a lot of conservatives aren’t upset with the Obama administration.

“We’re on a catastrophic path, and if it doesn’t change significantly, the result will be obvious,” Harrison said. “Romney is our best option for change.”

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