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Two parties far apart in turnout tactics too

The GOP uses precision pitches; Democrats try to exploit broad unease.

November 06, 2006|Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

BOCA RATON, FLA. — Jewish voters received a pamphlet about Israel's fight with Hezbollah. Spanish speakers heard radio ads about Fidel Castro. Seniors got recorded telephone calls from crooner Pat Boone, now 72, about Social Security.

As Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) fights to keep his seat in Congress, he is drawing heavily from the Republican playbook of dividing voters by their backgrounds and interests and appealing to them with tailored pitches. His success -- along with his party's hopes for hanging onto its congressional majorities -- relies in part on databases and search tools used to identify sympathetic voters and move them to the polls.

Shaw's Democratic challenger has a far different strategy. Instead of specialized appeals, state legislator Ron Klein repeats a simple message to nearly every audience: Iraq is a mess, and it is time for a change.

That contrast underscores a central question to be answered Tuesday in this South Florida House district and other competitive races across the country: Which political force will prove stronger -- the niche-marketing effort, led by GOP strategist Karl Rove and powered by computerized outreach methods, or the classic "throw the bums out" mood of an electorate uneasy with the Iraq war and unhappy with one-party rule?

"We'll find out soon," said Klein as he walked through one of the many affluent neighborhoods in this seaside district, trying to persuade voters to oust an incumbent who has served in Congress for a quarter-century.

As the two campaigns make their final appeals, the differences suggest that many of the advantages that have boosted Republicans to victory in the past -- more money, redrawn congressional districts and the superior voter targeting demonstrated by Shaw's courtship of Jews, Latinos and seniors -- may be less potent this time.

The moderate 22nd District is one of three in Florida alone considered vulnerable for the GOP. Nationwide, about three dozen House races are competitive. To control the House, Democrats need to gain 15 seats; for the Senate, they must pick up six.

Shaw began the campaign with an arsenal typical of GOP incumbents, including a head start on fund-raising. But voter anger and a sense among donors that Democrats could control Congress have put Klein close to financial parity.

Now, the race is considered winnable for the Democrats, and Shaw's best hope comes from the GOP strategy of narrow-casting and voter identification.

On Friday, as in GOP campaigns across the country, the Shaw team's "72-hour plan" got underway -- its final effort to reach people who, according to their profile in the party's national database, are likely to favor Republican candidates.

At a field office in Boca Raton, dozens of volunteers turned up to knock on doors and talk to voters. A staffer distributed clipboards with printed pages of names, addresses and detailed maps.

The printouts came from the "Voter Vault," the GOP's national database, which tagged voters with labels showing why they were worth contacting: Some were dubbed "socos" (social conservatives) or "fiscos" (fiscal conservatives) or "soft Dems" (crossover voters). Each had already been identified as ready to favor Shaw. The goal was to persuade each one, using hints from the database, to make the effort to go to the polls.

Party leaders have built a 72-hour plan for every significant GOP race in the nation. The effort was developed by Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman after the 2000 election, in which Democrats outpaced the GOP in grass-roots activism and nearly won the presidency.

The "Voter Vault" is a central element of the plan, and the party invested more than $15 million to update the system this year. So far this election cycle, it has guided 24 million phone or in-person contacts to conservative voters.

Following the plan, over the campaign's final three days, GOP field offices in Shaw's district must file updated spreadsheets every three hours to the state GOP in Tallahassee, showing how many voters have been personally contacted. State party officials report that data to national headquarters, where staff members make sure that individual campaigns are meeting their goals.

By contrast, Klein believes that his broad appeal on Iraq and the need for change in Washington hold the keys to victory. Still, he too has scrambled to reach targeted groups.

Klein acknowledges that the GOP has an advantage in voter turnout, but said his campaign has spent a year building a field organization and a competing database. However, his database received only limited help from the national Democratic Party, and it has less detail than the GOP's.

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