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Campaign gives shoe-leather lessons to Nevada's neighbors

Obama backers arrive from adjacent states to help knock on doors -- good training for their own early primaries.

September 25, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

las vegas -- Susan Gray and Tom Harper, momentarily lost amid a labyrinth of desert-hued apartment buildings, attract curious stares from tenants as they scurry along snaking sidewalks until they finally find the address on their list: a second-floor unit at the top of a flight of stairs.

Harper knocks on the door as Gray adjusts her armload of Barack Obama 2008 Nevada caucus pledge cards. Neither notices the retirement-age man on the sidewalk below, hands held loosely at his sides, his upturned face suspicious over an untucked blue shirt.

"Can I help you?" the man demands. No, Harper says, peering over the rail, they're just looking for the apartment dweller. "I see his car," the man offers, nodding toward the parking lot, and suggests his neighbor might be sleeping because he works odd hours. "Can I help you?" he demands again, more sharply this time.

Harper looks down at him and, after a pause, explains that they're working for the Obama campaign and that the person at the address is listed as a supporter. "Good," the man says, touching his right hand to the small of his back, "because I've got my .44 back here."

Gun-toting neighbors weren't on Gray's list of expectations when the political novice left her Mission Viejo home Friday to spend the weekend pounding the Las Vegas pavement for Obama. She and four other Orange County volunteers came to pair up with locals like Harper, and to get crash course in street-level politics.

This morning's lesson: Expect the unexpected.

Over the last couple of months, 164 Obama volunteers from neighboring states have made similar trips to Las Vegas, Reno and Elko as part of the Obama campaign's Drive for Change program. His is the only Democratic presidential campaign using this tactic, according to local observers.

The idea is to augment Nevadans' volunteer work ahead of the state's Jan. 19 caucuses while learning such campaign basics as how to run phone banks, knock on doors and collect data. Obama's campaign is running similar efforts in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- which also are holding early caucuses or primaries.

But Nevada's program has an added dimension: "We are surrounded by February 5th states," said Obama's campaign director in Nevada, David Cohen, referring to primaries scheduled in California, Arizona, Idaho and Utah. That makes Nevada prime training ground for volunteers from the other states.

"This is important from a larger, strategic perspective," Cohen said.

So far, California groups have traveled from the Bay Area to Reno, and from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego to Las Vegas. Arizona volunteers -- 21 last weekend -- also target the Las Vegas area; volunteers from Utah and Idaho focus on Elko and other rural areas in the vast northeast part of the state.

The trips are coordinated by the official Obama campaign in Nevada, but often draw from unofficial grass-roots resources, such as a group calling itself Orange County for Obama. Most of the groups are making multiple trips. Last weekend was the second Drive for Change for the Orange County group, and a third is possible.

Most of the imported volunteers stay in Nevadans' homes. The campaign hopes they'll build relationships so Nevadans will go to California, Arizona, Utah and Idaho for get-out-the-vote primary drives there, Cohen said.

Though caucuses and primaries are conducted differently -- precinct-level meetings scheduled for a set time versus absentee ballots and all-day polling -- the organizing details are similar: Find supporters and make sure they get to where they need to be when the time comes.

A similar 2004 effort by Howard Dean in Iowa backfired. The locals resented the intrusion of thousands of out-of-staters who wore orange hats and were ignorant of local pronunciations. The Obamans hope to head off such troubles in Nevada by pairing the traveling volunteers with locals -- and by teaching in an orientation session that it's Ne-VAD-uh, not Ne-VAH-duh.

"These volunteers aren't parachuting into communities telling Nevadans who to caucus for," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "They are providing logistical and organizational support to increase the amount of outreach our 2,000 Nevada volunteers can perform to their neighbors. And they're learning the skills they need to organize their communities in California to turn enthusiasm for Barack Obama into votes on February 5th."

Enthusiasm is high. The volunteers speak with the fervor of the converted, and each organizational meeting begins with get-acquainted segments in which volunteers explain why they're supporting Obama. It may sound like a group therapy session, but it's part of a grass-roots organizing strategy that relies on "personal narratives" to help forge bonds.

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