Can Obama's Grass-Roots Army Win Missouri?

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    Monday, Oct. 06, 2008
    Can Obama's Grass-Roots Army Win Missouri?
    By Karen Ball / Kansas City

    Republicans in Missouri used to chuckle over the boasts of Barack Obama's grass-roots campaign, most notably the official claim to have 40 field offices, some covering the reddest and most rural regions of the state, and the unofficial whispers about having as many as 150 paid staffers. As the summer settled in and John McCain opened up what looked like a solid 5-to-7-point lead, Obama's investment of time and resources had Republicans and even some skeptical Democrats asking, Who are all these Obama staffers anyhow, and aren't they just wasting their time and the campaign's money?

    More recently, though, Obama's big bet on Missouri doesn't seem like such a joke. The latest St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll has Obama pulling within 1 point of McCain, and a new TIME/CNN poll has the Democratic nominee actually leading his Republican rival by 1 point among likely voters. The increasing tightness of the race — even if it's part of a national wave spurred by a focus on the faltering economy — shows why every doorbell, and every person ringing them, can make a world of difference in an election.

    Obama's strategists have long believed that a stronger ground game could turn narrow Democratic losses of recent years into wins. They note that Al Gore never would have needed Florida if he had instead built an organization to turn out an average of 15 additional votes per precinct in Missouri. Team Obama is also vowing to register 75,000 new voters in Missouri — and voter rolls are indeed swelling, up by 200,000 so far, though the secretary of state's office doesn't keep track of how many are Democrats or Republicans.

    The Obama campaign's commitment to every corner of the state is evident in rural Nixa, Mo., about a dozen miles south of Springfield and on the way to no place in particular. It sits in Christian County, which voted 70% Republican in the last presidential election. It's not the easiest part of the world to promote a candidate known for his statement that guns and religion might be the bitter psychological baggage of America's left-behind. Over the summer, state Republicans made hay of Obama's "field office" in Nixa, pop. roughly 17,000, which was but a table and chairs set up outside a vacant storefront. "Paid?" quipped former state GOP chairman Hillard Selck. "This could just be some guy who came out of retirement, sitting at a filling station handing out cards." But that once laughable table in Nixa is now a full-fledged office.

    In Nixa and elsewhere, staffers are paid to build a web of "neighborhood organizing teams." Each team begins with a volunteer who vows to work 15 to 20 hours per week leading an additional five volunteers, who each promise to manage 8 to 10 precincts. The campaign claims to have some 2,000 "team leaders" covering every neighborhood of the state. They have been busy for weeks already, knocking on doors and dialing phones in search of those 15 additional voters. On the first weekend of September, according to the Obama campaign, this network visited 30,000 Missouri homes. They finished the month with an even more massive effort, pulling in volunteers from a six-state region with a goal of knocking on 100,000 doors in a single weekend.

    Managing such a far-flung operation can be messy. On a recent morning in midtown Kansas City, Obama's local headquarters was bustling. A team of about 15 staffers, paid and volunteer, hunched over laptops and cradled cell phones in a bare space provisioned with bags of Lays potato chips and Dum Dums. A pair of disposable chopsticks and a Chinese takeout container peeked from a trashcan, testament to someone's late night. A steady stream of supporters trooped through the door, eager for yard signs.

    Most campaigns give such free advertising away for, well, free, but they cost $8 apiece here. Having folks pay for signs gives them a real stake in the campaign, Obama believes. And it is one way to help pay for all those workers, though salaries are hardly lavish. College-age workers can get around $2,000 a month — they typically camp out with relatives or on the hide-a-beds of campaign donors — while even top field directors with years of experience have been offered salaries of less than six figures, according to one Washington insider.

    Still, it adds up. Paying $2,000 each month to 150 staffers is a significant investment, even for a campaign that raises money as prodigiously as Obama's. Some Democrats worry about the huge overhead — Obama is reported to have 350 paid field workers in Florida — in light of the Republican Party's fund-raising prowess and sharper focus. Nationwide, Obama is massively outspending McCain on payroll: $2.7 million for salaries in August alone, compared with $1.1 million for McCain, according to federal election reports.

    One person who believes the investment can pay off is Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who co-chairs Obama's national campaign. She used a similar strategy in 2006 to unseat Republican Jim Talent. McCaskill stumped hard and spent money across southern Missouri, traditionally Republican turf, narrowing her losses there and leaving Talent unable to overcome her huge advantages in the traditional Democratic strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis.

    (View a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)
    Obama's Missouri plan also mirrors his national strategy, McCaskill says. "It's a metaphor for the way Obama sees his job, governing from the bottom up," she says. Renting Main Street storefronts in small-town Missouri and staffing them with paid workers is a way of proving that he can reach out to all walks of American life. No way, no how, Obama's staffers insist, will they do as John Kerry did in 2004, waving the white flag in Missouri a full three weeks before Election Day to pour his resources elsewhere. "We need to make sure no one is confused about Barack Obama's commitment," says McCaskill.

    McCain has led most of the summer in this bellwether state — Missouri has gone with the winner in every presidential election but one since 1904 — with just a skeleton crew in place. In fact, paid McCain staffers are so scarce in these parts that reporters have to call Iowa if they want a comment. Tina Hervey, the state GOP spokeswoman, says the McCain camp is simply doing a better job of marshaling resources — and they are confident that the "72-hour strategy" of flooding likely Republican voters with phone calls, direct mail and even personal visits in the last few days, used to boost President Bush to re-election in 2004, can be reactivated.

    No matter what more recent polls suggest, Obama's push in Missouri's conservative corners strikes Republicans as bluff, bluster and a bizarre waste of time and money. "You can't run out in the middle of the Ozarks and open an office and expect anybody to give a damn," says Selck. "Republicans are Republicans." Adds Hervey: "We are the Bible Belt. We are the home of John Ashcroft," referring to the son of a Pentecostal preacher who, after serving as Missouri governor and U.S. Senator, was appointed Attorney General and promptly ordered $8,000 in drapes to cover half-nude statues at the Justice Department.

    That reality has not escaped the foot soldiers manning some of Obama's most remote outposts. At a former beauty school in Sikeston, in the southeast part of the state known as the Bootheel, an Obama staffer picked up the phone recently and was asked what it's like behind enemy lines. There was a long pause. At last he said, "It's a tough state."

    Tough, yes, says McCaskill. But winnable. "This is going to be a typical Missouri horse race. It's gonna be close. It's going to keep you excited all the way up to 2 o'clock in the morning on election night."

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