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Obama's quest: Turn support into votes

The Democrat's grass roots network is thriving.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 25, 2007

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., talks to an audience at Florida A&M University during a campaign stop Friday in Tallahassee.
[AP photo]
[AP photo]
Students and supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. (right) crowd around to get a picture of and shake hands with the candidate during a campaign stop at Florida A&M University.

TALLAHASSEE - Barack Obama bounded on stage Friday to the thunder of the Florida A&M University marching band. Scanning hundreds of young faces, he shouted:

"Give it up for Andrew!"

Andrew Gillum, a FAMU grad who serves on the Tallahassee City Commission, was in the front row. "Twenty-seven and he's already a commissioner! You can just imagine what he's going to be doing in the years to come. He's a great friend."

The praise seemed like more than the standard flattery of a visiting presidential candidate for a local politician. Gillum is among the legion of volunteers who have delivered huge crowds for Obama across the country, helping shape the Illinois senator into a contender.

More than 1,000 people filled Gaither gym on the historically black college campus as Obama issued his message of harmony while also delivering a sharp indictment of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war.

The crowd began arriving two hours early. And they were loud. More than any other presidential candidate, Obama is seeking to replicate and improve on the Internet-driven, grass roots success of Howard Dean, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

"It's a Dean-like energy," Gillum said, "only we're taking it to the next level."

The campaign is tapping new social networking tools on the Internet to not only reach supporters but also to keep them interested and involved. The soldiers need to become voters.

As illustrated by Dean's ultimate failure to transform the buzz into victory, a heavy grass roots emphasis is not a sure thing. It may even be a risk.

"Our No. 1 goal has to be turning this enthusiasm into victory, so people just don't attend events and wave signs but play an active role," Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged. "Because we aren't going to win without them."

The Obama campaign has three paid staff members in Florida but a few thousand volunteers who act as pitchmen on the Internet, in coffee shops and by canvassing neighborhoods.

This week, for example, Gillum organized "dorm storms" on Tallahassee's three college campuses, knocking on doors and urging students to come to Friday's rally. Most who showed up were students.

As they entered the gym Friday some stopped by a booth, operated by volunteers, and filled out voter registration forms.

Friday's event also illustrated Obama's creative fundraising methods. Students who entered paid $10 and everyone else $20 - money that was treated as a campaign contribution. Given the crowd, he would have taken in just over $10,000.

The word of Obama

In Tampa, the volunteer group is known as the O-Train. Regular meetings attract between 30 and 100 people. Events range from neighborhood canvassing to debate watching house parties and networking through Facebook and MySpace, the online social communities.

Shane Ali, a 32-year-old radio and TV broadcast major at Hillsborough Community College, recently booked bands at the Crowbar in Ybor City. Between hip hop and rock music, he told the audience of more than 200 about Obama.

"I try to make it 80 percent fun and 20 percent politics," Ali said. "I'm really excited how the whole thing went. I definitely plan on doing more in the future."

In Orlando, volunteer Michelle Stile, 26, maintains a page on Obama's Web site that has more than 100 members. She has organized debate watching parties and handed out literature at July 4 firework displays.

The group also tours coffee shops, spreading the word of Obama.

"If you look at the diversity in the room, it's staggering," Stile said. "It's the kind of America - and I'm not corny, I promise - that Sen. Obama talks about."

Organization, outreach

Today, members of the Orlando and Tampa contingents will be in Miami for an Obama rally.

The unwavering devotion sounds familiar.

In 2004, Dean emerged from obscurity, thanks largely to his grass roots effort. He exploited the Internet as a fundraising and organizational tool but didn't do as well mating the online presence with campaign outreach.

Obama's campaign, without mentioning Dean, says it has "learned from the mistakes of the past" and has made outreach a priority.

Gillum said rarely a day goes by when he does not get an update on policy or talking points he can use when going door to door. The campaign has also trained more than 1,000 volunteers at "Camp Obama" gatherings and organized nearly 500 Students for Barack Obama chapters on college campuses.

The Dean fanaticism proved problematic in Iowa, a critical early state. A swarm of volunteers wearing orange hats did not go over well among the sober-minded voters.

Obama has to be careful about the same negative reaction to young, exuberant volunteers, said Richard Semiatin, a political professor at American University. He agrees Obama has the largest grass roots network but is not convinced of the value.

"The Chinese have the largest army in the world," Semiatin said, "but it doesn't make them the best. Size is only one variable."


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[Last modified August 24, 2007, 22:35:58]

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