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Obama's forces hit the streets in Florida

TAMPA — Brenda Tipps didn't get much sleep the night before, and she was wilting in the afternoon heat, but she forged ahead to the next Seminole Heights house.

"Tony Green. 33. Male. No party," she read from her clipboard.

She knocked, ready to ask Mr. Green if he planned to vote for the likely Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, in November.

Though she has lived in the United States for almost 40 years, this will be the first time Tipps, 67, will be able to cast a vote in a presidential election. Born in England, the retiree just became a citizen this year, and she's jumping right into Obama's campaign.

"I feel that it is really possible to make a change," she said.

Tipps knocked on doors along with Jonah Gorski, one of dozens of Obama staff workers who led volunteers door to door Saturday in neighborhoods stretching from Pensacola to Sarasota. It's the first of many statewide canvassing events, according to the Obama campaign.

"It's going to be larger than any Democratic campaign and maybe any campaign in history here," Florida Obama spokesman Mark Bubriski said.

The Florida Obama campaign already has surpassed many others in terms of laying infrastructure more than four months before the general election. Obama's staff won't reveal exact numbers, but Bubriski said it plans to hire "a lot more than 100" paid staffers. Last month, the campaign employed 20.

The Obama campaign declined to say how many offices it's already opened, but the campaign Web site indicated that over the past week three offices have sprung up in Miami Gardens, Altamonte Springs and DeLand, in addition to new headquarters in Tampa.

Some political veterans say they hear that the campaign plans to open between 30 and 50 offices, including one in the heart of St. Petersburg, along Central Avenue and near 25th Street.

Many of the offices will be in places typically ignored by Democrats, said Florida director Steven Schale at the opening of the statewide headquarters in Ybor City this week.

"Fifty offices is a gi-normous number and pretty unprecedented for a statewide campaign," said Derek Newton, a Democratic consultant in Miami.

In 2000, Al Gore's campaign had only about a half-dozen paid staff workers in Florida, said political strategist Karl Koch of Tampa. In 2004, the Kerry campaign hired a few dozen staff workers here, but few had Florida experience and even fewer had been hired as early as July, political strategists and former Kerry staffers say.

In Tampa, 10 Obama supporters arrived at the downtown library Saturday morning for the first shift of volunteers for door-to-door campaigning. They worked the area around the University of South Florida.

Chris Radulich came from Apollo Beach to help. A retired phone company employee, the 60-year-old moved here three years ago from Long Island.

He said Saturday's canvassing was his first campaign work since he helped his former party, the Republicans, up North.

The events of the past seven years have motivated him, he said. "I have to get out and do something more than vote."

Tipps, part of the afternoon shift, met several Obama supporters while knocking on doors in Seminole Heights. She encountered only one person still on the fence.

Melinda Welch, 38, wanted to know Obama's stance on marriage. "I'm leaning toward him because I'm a Democrat, but I'm unsure," she said.

What the Obama Florida campaign is counting on is thousands of volunteers to dispatch across the state.

On Friday, volunteers were registering voters at the Starbucks in Ybor City, at Safety Harbor's Third Friday Music Series and in Boca Raton at the opening night of Batman: The Dark Knight. Others waved signs on an Inverness street corner.

On May 10, the campaign had 1,000 volunteers show up at events statewide to register voters, said Obama Florida finance chairman Kirk Wagar. At that point, the campaign had only three paid staff members, he said. "I think it'll be a holy smokes moment, when people realize how many people are volunteering full time vs. paid staffers," Wagar said.

Obama has rejected public financing, so his campaign isn't bound by the limits on spending and rules preventing coordination between the state party and the candidate, Wagar said.

"The real exciting thing is there's going to be one place that houses all the information, with one thing in mind: electing Barack Obama," Wagar said.

But there's some concern that with so many young, imported staff members — many started driving down to Florida this week — there may be problems explaining the different varieties of Florida Democrats.

"There is always a risk, because Florida is literally and electorally five different states," said former state party executive director Screven Watson. "If you get people from Iowa or New Hampshire who try to overlay their experience in Florida, it's a disaster. We don't have condos or bagel shops or huge pockets of Democrats in Bay County, like we do in Broward County."

But Watson also noted that the Obama campaign has hired a lot of experienced Florida strategists to run the show, including more than half of the Florida Democratic Party office staff.

Times staff writers Janet Zink and Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

Obama's forces hit the streets in Florida 07/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 5:56pm]
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