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Even in GOP territory, Obama volunteers undaunted

SUN CITY CENTER — Debby Earley, 60, is wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt with her long denim skirt, white ankle socks and loafers. She sits in the newly opened office for the Democratic presidential candidate, making her way down her calling list of registered voters.

"I'm with the Barack Obama and Joe Biden campaign, and I was wondering how he felt about Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden?" she asks a voter's relative on the other end of the line. Silence. "You know what . . . ?"

She slowly closes her cell phone. The person hung up.

Earley is among the stream of about 150 resident volunteers who pour into this office off South Pebble Beach Drive in a community where county records show Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one.

Despite the numbers — or maybe because of them — the volunteers are fiercely loyal, enthusiastic and undaunted by hang-ups, the occasional hard-of-hearing voter or the sun.

"I was out canvassing Friday for four hours in the heat," Earley says. "Then I came in to the phone bank, and I got nine people to turn to Obama." She pumps her arm.

Earley herself is a convert. A registered Republican, she signed on to Obama's message after the first time she heard him speak.

Through phone banks and canvassing, volunteers try to persuade Democrats to vote for their candidate, send applications for absentee ballots to homebound residents and attempt to push indecisive voters off the fence.

The Obama office in Sun City Center is one of five in Hillsborough County, including the campaign's statewide headquarters in Ybor City.

"In general we've been opening offices all over the state in places where Democratic presidential campaigns have never ventured," said Obama campaign regional spokeswoman Adora Andy.

"We wanted to make sure we're there to answer their questions and to engage the community."

These volunteers live here in this retirement community, in a population that is historically politically active.

That means sometimes outside this office, in the middle of the community's numerous social clubs and gatherings, they keep their opinions to themselves.

"I have friends I know who are Republicans, but I don't bring up politics and they don't either," said Vera Chapman, who gave her age as "late 50s," as she assembled political fliers at a table with three other women. "I really think we could get into a shouting match."

Chapman and the other volunteers called this election the most important one of their lifetimes — which is especially poignant given that volunteers like Lila Jomantas, 66, trace their activism back to John F. Kennedy's bid for president.

The volunteers said they got involved this year because they feel so strongly that the country is on the wrong track. For them, the election's biggest issues are the economy and the war in Iraq.

"I'm on a pension and Social Security, and I was going along fine," said 68-year-old Fran Orenstein. "Now I can barely make ends meet."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or 661-2441.

Even in GOP territory, Obama volunteers undaunted 10/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:33pm]
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