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Obama's Ground Game Advantage

Obama's ground game -- an army of helping hands. (Reuters).

By Peter Slevin
CHICAGO -- Political campaigns play to their strengths, and one realm where Sen. Barack Obama has excelled is the ground game.

When the campaign began one year ago, Obama was far less known nationally than his principal rivals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards (D-N.C.). Since then, the freshman senator from Illinois has benefited enormously from the work of legions of grass-roots organizers who are giving, heart and soul, to his White House bid.

Obama's successes in the early primaries owe much to the tactics and initiative of young field organizers in places like Estill, S.C., Elko, Nev., and Waterloo, Iowa. Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, where voters in 22 states will choose Democratic delegates, the Obama campaign is again counting on a superior ground game to peel away delegates in very competitive districts.

More than 500 paid staffers have been deployed to the Feb. 5 states, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe reported in a conference call with reporters today. He said the campaign has what it calls 75,000 "active volunteers" making telephone calls, knocking on doors and otherwise helping out.

To show what a difference the organization can make, Plouffe pointed to Saturday's South Carolina primary, where Obama won 44 of 46 counties and more than doubled Clinton's vote totals amid record turnout. He said 13,000 volunteers reported for duty on Election Day.

That works out to one volunteer for every 23 voters who cast a ballot for Obama.

"This is a place," Plouffe told reporters, referring to the ground game, "where I think we have a dominant advantage."

With vast territory to work and only seven days left, strategists for the surviving candidates are racing to decide how to apportion the campaign's money and time, not to mention the energy of the candidates and their surrogates. Plouffe said the Obama camp is now running radio or television ads in all 22 Feb. 5 states, except Illinois, where a recent poll shows Obama leading Clinton by a 2 to 1 margin.

Although polls show Obama trailing in some of the biggest Feb. 5 states, Plouffe said the Obama campaign has raised $5 million online since the South Carolina polls closed. The campaign says it has registered more than 600,000 donors so far, with fewer than 3 percent having contributed the maximum allowable amount.

Surrogates are on the air for Obama in their own states, including Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Sen. Kent Conrad in North Dakota and Gov. Janet Napolitano in Arizona. Advertisements with other prominent supporters are in the works, Plouffe said.

An example of Obama's unorthodox decision to deploy organizers to unlikely states is Kansas, where he visited his grandparents' home town of El Dorado today and picked up the endorsement of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a popular two-term governor known for working with Republicans -- at least the ones she was unable to persuade to switch parties. Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, now a Democrat, is a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.

Obama staffers first appeared in Kansas in October, four months before the Feb. 5 caucus and three months before the first Clinton organizers arrived in the state. There are now 18 Obama workers in Kansas, or six times the number of Clinton staffers. All this for a state that will choose 32 delegates on Tuesday, compared with 370 in California and 232 in New York.

"Showing the ability to perform well across the country, particularly against Senator Clinton, who was the inevitable national front-runner for most of the campaign, has great value," Plouffe said in an earlier interview with The Trail. "If Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, the night of Novermber 3, we're going to be talking about a lot more states in play than Senator Clinton."

Thirteen Kansas legislators gathered in the ornate statehouse rotunda in Topeka on Jan. 17 to endorse Obama. They said the Clinton and Edwards campaigns had done almost nothing to reach out to them, while the Obama staff had called repeatedly -- often after organizing groups of activists in the legislators' districts.

By saying voters in their districts were supporting Obama, the campaign workers persuaded the legislators to take a closer look.

"It's a response to voters who are telling us whom we should support," said Sen. Anthony Hensley, the senate minority leader.

A very different demographic group is helping Clinton, said her Kansas co-chair, Topeka attorney Dan Lykins, who has been the state party chair since 1992. He predicted a close race between Obama and Clinton with Edwards trailing.

"Probably the people who are organizing the best and helping us the most are the labor union people and also some of the regular Democrats who have always been there," Lykins said. "I know that when they say they're going to work, they will. These are the same active Democrats who have been helping our party for 20 or 30 years."

The Obama campaign likes the energy it is seeing in Kansas. Organizers counted 58 supporters in conservative Salina last week and more than 60 at an event in Kansas City on Sunday.

"Obama's an organizer. He knows how to motivate people," said Obama supporter Dan Watkins, a former Kansas Democratic Party executive director, referring to the candidate's community organizing background in Chicago. "They have a plan. They're doing it step by step."

A Clinton strategist questioned the Obama approach, pointing out how many fewer delegates are up for grabs in states such as Kansas, Utah, Idaho and North Dakota, where the Obama campaign has an organizing advantage. The strategist noted that Clinton is concentrating her efforts in four states -- California, New York, New Jersey and Arkansas -- that will produce 44 percent of the Feb. 5 delegates. She will also go head-to-head with Obama in a string of states stretching from Massachusetts through Georgia and Missouri to Arizona.

"It's very hard to gain a big advantage in small states," the strategist said.

Small advantages or big advantages, Obama advisers are making clear they want to claim delegates anywhere they can.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 29, 2008; 4:07 PM ET
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