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Bush Sees Fertile Soil in 'Exurbia'

GOP strategists believe they can win many new voters in outlying towns rich with conservatives.

June 28, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

LEBANON, Ohio — Tom Grossman parks his blue convertible at a home expo center and walks through the maze of booths hawking the necessities of upscale living: home security systems, Jacuzzi tubs, fancy kitchen fixtures and wooden blinds. Then he settles into a booth of his own.

But Grossman has not come to Chestnut Hill, one of southwestern Ohio's newest subdivisions, to peddle home furnishings. He has come to hunt new Republican voters.

"Hey there, have you registered to vote?" he asks passersby. "I can do it for you. Won't take but a minute."

The Republican chairman for Warren County is seated behind a table stacked with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers -- an incongruous sight at the expo. But he is here at the direct behest of President Bush's most senior political strategists, who believe victory in November depends on scouring the nation's battleground states not only for the much-publicized swing voter, but also for an equally important prize: the "exurbanite."

Fleeing built-out areas near cities for the newest ring of developments beyond the suburbs, exurbanites are searching for more house for less money, better schools, less traffic and all-around easier living. Exurban areas are booming and, according to demographers and GOP strategists, rapidly drawing a concentration of culturally conservative but unregistered, unaffiliated voters.

And that is why Karl Rove, Bush's senior political advisor, is so sure the president can make major gains in exurban areas. Along with Lebanon, places such as Fridley, Minn., Carlisle, Pa., New Richmond, Wis., and Livingston County, Mich., are the new obsession for high-level GOP operatives in Washington.

Bush has visited many of these new boomtowns -- he was in Lebanon on May 4 -- and campaign officials say he will likely see more of them before November's election.

Each visit is designed to spur more for the campaign than a one-day burst of publicity. Playing off the excitement of a presidential appearance, strategists use it to recruit volunteers for phone banks, canvassing and voter registration efforts -- building what they hope will be an enduring GOP machine.

Rove is so taken with the potential in the exurbs that he can quickly rattle off the names of otherwise obscure counties in swing states across the nation, along with the percentages of people who have not registered to vote in each one.

"It takes them awhile to get established, to find the best grocery store, the best dry cleaner, to pick out a church, to sort of fit into the community," Rove said of the newcomers to these communities. "And then it takes them awhile to figure out the local politics, and then presidential politics."

Rove thinks the GOP can make voter registration gains in these communities, bringing an advantage at the polls.

In the nation's old-growth suburbs, which have emerged as key swing areas in recent years, he said that 88% of eligible adults are registered to vote. In the exurbs, it is 83%. Closing that small gap, Rove thinks, could make the difference for his party in a tight presidential race.

"The growth potential is much bigger on the Republican side in exurban counties than it is on the Democratic side in urban counties," said Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd.

That potential was evident at Tom Grossman's voter registration booth at the home expo, or "homearama," a traveling home furnishings show that moves every few weeks to a new subdivision and was in the Lebanon area earlier this month.

Grossman estimated that he registered about 10 GOP voters an hour. "You don't have to guess about it. They're clearly Republicans," he said, interrupted routinely with screams of "Go Bush!" and "All the way!" from passersby.

On a recent Wednesday evening, 35-year-old James Brodbeck approached the table. The former soldier, his wife and three kids moved to Warren County from Milwaukee in 2002, but he had not yet gotten around to registering to vote.

"I watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, like a lot of people," said Brodbeck, whose wife works full time while he takes care of the children.

He is definitely backing Bush, but had he not found Grossman, he might have neglected to register to vote. "We've just been dealing with other things," he said.

Some have their doubts that Brodbeck and others approaching Grossman's booth speak for a meaningful number of voters. If many of the new exurbanites are changing addresses within their states -- moving 30 miles, for example, from Cincinnati and its immediate suburbs to the Lebanon area -- can that really be counted as a gain for Bush? And is the pool of unregistered exurbanites enough to make up for the newly registered Democrats that various liberal groups are courting in urban areas?

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