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The political machine vs. the grass roots

California tests tactics: Clinton chases big-name backing, while Obama focuses on the little guy.

September 04, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — Dana Stewart, 54, spent more than two hours Wednesday night sitting on a folding chair in a private office-park conference room here learning how to become a "HillStar" -- part of a program Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign introduced last week to build a grass-roots get-out-the-vote organization ahead of California's Feb. 5 primary.

It was a vintage campaign session with a high-tech twist. Clinton staffer and veteran organizer Michael Trujillo taught Stewart and about 50 other potential volunteers how to use their own social networks -- from family and neighbors to e-mail contacts -- to identify the New York senator's supporters, who will then be entered into a database for follow-up.

"It's simple enough," Stewart said afterward, holding a copy of the bound presentation Trujillo had handed out. "It's not brain surgery. We all have friends we can deal with. Hopefully they're like-minded, so it's not like we have to twist a lot of arms."

The next night, Roger Hu convened a similar gathering of volunteers for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama four miles away at the Lucie Stern Community Center -- the third weekly meeting of Obama's supporters in California's 14th Congressional District. But there were no bound playbooks -- just an agenda and a list of the committee coordinators, plus a suggested script to use when phoning other potential volunteers.

And unlike the Clinton gathering, led by a paid staffer delivering the campaign line, the Obama meeting was run by a volunteer participating in his first presidential campaign.

"I think for a lot of people in my generation, it's about getting re-engaged in politics," said Hu, 29, an engineer and social justice activist. "A lot of things Obama has said about 'Stop watching "SportsCenter" and make this a better place' speaks volumes about the kind of people he speaks to."

The two sessions illuminate key differences between the Clinton and Obama campaigns as they fight for preeminence in California. Clinton has been wrapping up the high-profile endorsements -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- and building a traditional, centralized campaign organization. Obama has been trying to harness the energy that has brought thousands of people to his campaign rallies.

The Clinton campaign has established two state headquarters, one in San Francisco and the other in L.A., and has hired seven full-time staffers. Obama has an L.A. office and four paid staffers, with another likely to be added soon. Both have fleshed out the staffs at their headquarters with a raft of volunteers.

The Clinton campaign has focused on high-density Democratic regions such as L.A. and the Bay Area. The Obama campaign is trying to build networks in each congressional district; most state Democratic delegates are awarded to candidates based on how well they do in each district, not statewide. So far Obama has committees in 40 of the 53 districts.

Yet the overriding question for both campaigns is not where to find Democrats but how to motivate them.

"Every campaign is about the art of the possible," said Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski, who directed Sen. Barbara Boxer's campaigns but is not involved in the current campaign. "Obama couldn't rack up the endorsements that Hillary can after her years in the White House or in the Senate."

And if you can't get the big endorsements, then you stack up the little ones. "Endorsements of elected officials are powerful -- but so is the endorsement of your best friend," Kapolczynski said. "So grass-roots programs have some of the same goals as big-time endorsements."

Although the Democratic field remains crowded, recent state polls found the campaign apparently distilling into a two-person race, with about two-thirds of likely Democratic voters supporting either Clinton or Obama. Clinton enjoys the clear advantage, with 49% support in an early-August Field Poll, compared with 19% for Obama and 10% for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Clinton's strategy is to consolidate and extend that lead. A major component will be the HillStars program, under which the campaign hopes to train 1,000 unpaid leaders statewide to oversee groups of 20 local volunteers -- the "Hillary Corps" -- to use their personal networks of relatives, friends and co-workers to identify Clinton supporters.

Using a software program called Voter Activation Network, the campaign plans to build a database from the information gathered by the Hillary Corps to target voters for early absentee voting -- which begins Jan. 7 -- and for follow-up efforts on primary day, Trujillo said. They hope to contact 2 million potential voters by primary day.

Ace Smith, Clinton's state campaign director, said they intended to piggyback the Clinton organization on supporters' families and friendships.

"Most of our supporters have these big social networks," he said. "Why build something? Why not take advantage of something that exists already?"

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