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Foot Soldiers Fight to Boost Turnout

Election: With Bush and Gore deadlocked in polls, who captures the White House may be decided by volunteers and activists ferreting out more voters block by block.


BEAVERTON, Ore. — From political lieutenants plotting precinct walks to campaign grunts bunkered in phone banks, party activists are waging an expensive and sweeping ground war to turn out votes here and in other battleground states as the closest presidential fight in four decades heads toward its final week.

Republicans and Democrats alike appear poised to shatter spending records to boost voter turnout, and party elders say the ferocity of grass-roots activity around the country is at a level unseen for a generation.

With George W. Bush and Al Gore virtually deadlocked in national polls, the next president could well be decided by the true believers of the trenches, the political volunteers and low-paid activists fighting block by block in battlegrounds like Beaverton, a leafy community on Portland's suburban rim.

Pundits and polls count less in these final moments of the presidential campaign than die-hards such as Carolyn Lee, the Democratic field coordinator in Beaverton. The 22-year-old history buff unabashedly calls Al Gore her Robert F. Kennedy.

Across the suburban front lines is Scott Bruun, 34, a Portland bank executive and Republican regional campaign chairman. In George W. Bush he hears echoes of the Ronald Reagan years.

Lee and Bruun are among thousands of party faithful around the country pushing hard until 8:01 p.m. election day.

While national polls are essentially even, the more important competition is the state-by-state contest to garner the 270 electoral votes needed to take the White House.

Florida remains the biggest tossup state. At the same time, more than a dozen other states still are effectively in play--a list that has defied convention by expanding rather than shrinking as Nov. 7 nears. The race is the closest in decades, and that's where people like Lee and Bruun come in.

Republicans are jazzed by the prospect--after eight years outside the Oval Office--of fielding a winner. Even states like Oregon, long a Democratic presidential stronghold, are up for grabs.

"For the first time in my adult lifetime, we can take this state," says Bruun, one of Bush's first Oregon volunteers. "Republicans are fired up."

Nationally, the Republican Party has upward of $70 million to spend to get out the vote, roughly triple 1996's war chest. And that's just the start. The National Rifle Assn. talks of spending as much as $15 million, much of it to nudge people to the polls. The Christian Coalition is expected to distribute millions of voter guides boosting Bush.

Tom Cole, Republican National Committee chief of staff, calls it "our most extensive and intensive turnout effort in modern history."

Though devoted to Gore, rank-and-file Democrats seem prodded as much by fear, by the abyss, of the loss of the presidency and the ideological shift that could follow.

"We'd like to see him 20 points up," says Lee, who returned home to Oregon after college and campaign stops for Gore in New York and Iowa. "But it energizes us knowing that this race is basically in our hands."

Her party may be outspent nationally 2 to 1 by the GOP. The Democrats figure to even the ledger with help from organized labor, environmentalists and abortion rights advocates.

This fight for votes is particularly frenzied in the suburbs of America, the edge cities near Detroit or Pittsburgh or Seattle. Catherine Hanaway, the GOP campaign director in St. Louis, a key battleground, says, "We're running like we're running for a city council seat."

Looking for Support at $3 a Head

In the South, Democrats are scratching to gain ground. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Huntsville, Ala., is offering $3 for every new voter registered by churches or civic groups.

Both parties are pouring activists and money into Florida. Liz Lubow, a Gore campaign spokeswoman, suspects that the biggest turnout effort in state history is unfolding.

But the earliest start to election day is in Oregon.

The state has the nation's first all-mail election, with ballots dispatched 18 days before the rest of the country votes. As a result, Oregon GOP executive director Darryl Howard feels like Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day."

"From now through Nov. 7," he says, "we'll wake up each day, look at the alarm and say it's election day."

Though Oregon has a scant seven electoral votes, the fight is intense in places like Washington County, a mix of rural enclaves and prosperous suburbia. Nike's world headquarters is in Beaverton. Intel has a plant in nearby Hillsboro. The county is an edgy mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Carolyn Lee wants any she can get.

At the Democrats' Beaverton headquarters, tucked between a hair salon and a skateboard shop, Lee cracks open a Diet Coke and settles in for another 17-hour workday.

Lists written on butcher paper of precinct walkers and phone bank volunteers cover a wall. A multicolor construction paper sign reminds: "Get Out the Vote."

This is her life.

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