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CAMPAIGN '08: BATTLEGROUNDS

It's election day in Oregon -- for the next 2 weeks

May 05, 2008|Jim Tankersley | Chicago Tribune

SALEM, ORE. — The Weirichs were standing on their front step about noon Saturday, chatting with Sheila Dearman about their kids and college life -- and that Barack Obama fellow they all like so much -- when a little white truck pulled up and delivered the Oregon primary election, right on time.

Mike Weirich rushed to the mailbox. "The ballots are here," he said, walking back toward the house. His wife, Daphne, smiled. "We'll vote today," she said.

Dearman, an Obama volunteer who lives a few streets away, wrote a note on her clipboard and nodded approvingly.

Throughout Oregon, campaign workers for Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have begun urging voters to cast ballots for the Democratic presidential candidates -- even though there are just over two weeks, and several other nominating contests, to go before Oregon's May 20 primary.

That's because Oregon is the only state in the nation to vote exclusively by mail. State officials sent out ballots Friday, leaving the Obama and Clinton campaigns with the task of running intense get-out-the-vote efforts.

"The rest of the country is focused on other states -- North Carolina, Indiana," said Randall Edwards, the state treasurer, referring to those states' primaries Tuesday. "Look, I have my ballot. It's election day in Oregon today."

Edwards, a Democrat who supports Obama, and other statewide elected officials say Oregon's unique balloting favors well-organized, well-financed, technologically savvy candidates. They also say voters' mail-voting habits shift over time, and that there is no superior strategy for navigating the process.

Every election matters in this protracted race for the Democratic presidential nomination -- so much so that Guam's 4,500-voter caucuses made headlines over the weekend. Oregon offers Obama a chance to increase his leads in delegates and popular votes, or for Clinton to close the gap. Both campaigns predict up to 80% voter turnout in Oregon.

Analysts give Obama the early edge, partly because of the state's tradition of embracing anti-establishment politics. Perhaps more notable in the grand scheme of the nominating process is how Oregon's logistical challenges play to the quiet strength of Obama's campaign: his ground game.

Organizational advantages gave Obama big wins in states that allocated delegates by caucuses. In Texas and Nevada, they helped him blunt Clinton's advantage in the popular vote. In Oregon, his campaign says it has signed up more than 30,000 volunteers and registered 30,000 new Democrats to vote in the state primary.

Clinton's campaign claims 20,000 Oregon volunteers. It also has the support and advice of Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who endorsed the New York senator last year.

Winning in Oregon "is all about organization, voter communication and execution," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat who backs Obama. Added Susan Castillo, the state schools superintendent: "You've definitely got to have a strategy, and everybody comes at it differently."

Most strategies start with Oregon's daily updates on which voters have turned their ballots in. Campaigns cross-reference them with lists they have compiled of voters most likely to support them. Then the badgering begins.

In his two campaigns for governor, Kulongoski said he posted signs around the state with his name and this warning: "Turn in your vote. Don't make me call you."

When a voter has more than two weeks to cast a ballot, Kulongoski said, "you've got to be constantly on them."

Clinton officials say that such soliciting won't be as necessary this election, when primary fever alone will drive voters to the polls. They're focusing instead on persuading targeted voters. To that end, Clinton's campaign held 88 house parties around the state Friday, Saturday and Sunday to celebrate 88 years of presidential voting rights for American women -- a group that favored Clinton heavily in earlier primaries and traditionally return ballots early in Oregon.

Obama workers say they've won enough supporters to carry the state -- they just need make sure they vote. So over the weekend, campaign workers deployed volunteers from more than a dozen offices across the state with orders to pick up completed ballots (which is legal for campaigns) to return to the state.

Dearman, the Obama volunteer, found plenty of supporters during their first hour of knocking on doors Saturday in the south Salem neighborhood. But none of them had received their ballots except for the Weirichs, whom Dearman was talking with when the ballots arrived. After a 10-minute chat, she left them with an admonition.

"Get those ballots in early," she said. "Otherwise, we'll keep coming to the door."

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