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For all the talk, presidential race may come down to ground game

TAMPA — Finally, someone home.

Bill Sandman stood in fading daylight in a working class neighborhood of South Tampa and began his sales pitch. A woman at the front door cut him short.

"You've already voted?" Sandman said, repeating what the woman had just said. "How about your husband?" he continued. "Can we encourage him?"

A campaign worker hustling door-to-door may seem unremarkable, so 2008. But Sandman, 73, is working for Mitt Romney, and his effort late last week underscored the dramatic end-game of 2012.

After months of campaigning, hundreds of millions spent on negative TV ads and three 90-minute presidential debates, the result in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and other battlegrounds may come down to which side does a better job of getting people to the polls.

President Barack Obama set the standard four years ago with a hyper-organized volunteer army. But Republicans have lifted the playbook, and boast of their own unprecedented machine.

Sandman, who has never volunteered for a campaign before, plied the neighborhood near Gandy Boulevard with Obama-like precision; sheets of paper on a clipboard told him which homes were owned by registered Republicans and he zig-zagged down the street.

He helped the woman's husband, Robert Mosley, find a place to cast his ballot. "I can probably early vote tomorrow," Mosley, a 43-year-old registered Republican, told Sandman, who filled in a bubble on his checklist.

In Florida alone, the Romney campaign says it has made more than 13 million voter contacts, which includes phone calls and doorstep visits. Obama's campaign would not release state numbers but says it has made 125 million contacts nationally.

"Of course they are copying us. They know it works," said Pat Kasum, an Obama volunteer coordinator in St. Petersburg. "Honestly, it does worry me. All we can do is put more people on the street, put more people on the phone."

A superior ground game, experts say, can boost a campaign by 1 to 3 percentage points. In 2004, another vulnerable incumbent, President George W. Bush, powered past John Kerry with a final turnout effort.

• • •

In 2008, the Obama campaign launched the largest get-out-the-vote program Florida had ever seen.

They never really closed up shop and have been building an even more vast operation for 2012: 106 campaign offices (more than double Romney), hundreds of full-time paid staffers and tens of thousands of full-time and part-time volunteers.

The infrastructure and demographic trends — especially the 450,000 new African-American, Caribbean-American and Hispanic voters registered since 2008 — work in Obama's favor and are a large reason why the campaign invested so heavily in Florida, despite pundits pegging it as a likely Republican state.

"We've never given up on Florida because we believed from the beginning that we could win that state," said Jeremy Bird, Obama's national field director, claiming success despite changes by the Republican-controlled Legislature that made it harder for groups to register voters and reduced early voting days. Huge lines at early voting locations across the state last week gave Democrats a jolt of enthusiasm.

Republicans say that with fewer days to vote early, Democrats will head into Election Day with significantly fewer votes than 2008, and it won't be enough to overcome the expected GOP advantage on Tuesday.

Through Saturday, the last full day of in-person early voting, Democrats had built a 133,000-ballot lead over Republicans in votes cast. But that is down from 2008, and polls have shown Romney capturing more of the independent vote.

Florida being Florida, however, both sides expect a tight race.

One Republican operative in West Palm Beach fretted in a recent memo obtained by a local TV station: "The early and absentee turnout is starting to look more troubling. The Democrat turnout machine in the county has been very effective and they are cleaning our clock. Even if Romney wins the state (likely based on polls), the turnout deficit in PBC (Palm Beach County) will affect our local races."

• • •

Leah Williams, dressed comfortably Saturday afternoon in a T-shirt and shorts, pulled her car alongside a road in a predominantly African-American St. Petersburg community. A clipboard she carried was full of addresses of likely Democratic voters. Her shoulder bag was stuffed with Obama fliers.

Williams, 43, who works in marketing for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has been hitting the streets for weeks, making contacts with voters and encouraging turnout.

"I talked to too many people when Al Gore lost who didn't actually ever get around to voting," Williams said. "You don't want to make that person feel bad, but inside, you're steamed. I can't stand for that again."

The Obama formula counts on these relationships to make lasting connections and motivate voters. Williams approached each door and delivered her "happy knock," a cheerful flurry or raps.

"It's a constant reminder. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in your daily stuff," said Karen Boozy, 41, who said Williams' visit Saturday was the fifth time someone had dropped by.

"It's becoming subliminal. The buzz is, 'Get out and vote, get out and vote,' " said Demetrius Chisholm, 36, who told Williams he would vote Tuesday. She appealed to him to consider voting that day, instead, as insurance in case anything came up.

This time, the Obama campaign has been focused on new or "sporadic" voters, those who do not regularly participate.

"I was going to vote in 2008 but I didn't," acknowledged Elijah Holloway, 29, of Tampa, who was at an early voting site on Thursday. "But when you get people saying. 'Go vote, go vote, go vote' it makes you really want to go vote."

Responses like that give the campaign confidence that it can win Florida and other key states where polling shows a tight, unpredictable race. But Republicans have countered with a machine that, if not as perfected or sizeable, runs high with energy.

The South Tampa Romney office could have passed for one of Obama's in 2008, with a dry erase board listing weekly goals for phone calls and door knocks. Two dozen people made phone calls Thursday. The secret weapon: A pair of girls, ages 11 and 9, whose sweet voices were impossible to hang up on.

What is noticeably improved, organizers say, is the face-to-face contact with voters. "In some ways there is no comparison to 2008," said Anne Voss, 72, a Romney volunteer who was on board with Republican nominee John McCain four years ago.

The campaign had gotten through to Robin Wilson, 24, an independent voter in Tampa. She was contacted by Romney supporters via Facebook and phone. She voted for Obama in 2008 but was unsure as she arrived at a library in East Tampa to vote Thursday.

"I wasn't too happy with the last four years, Wilson said, lamenting car repairs that were eating into her strained budget.

On her way out, she announced her decision: "Team Obama."

For all the talk, presidential race may come down to ground game 11/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 4, 2012 11:14pm]
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