Get ready to see a Democratic presidential campaign the likes of which this state has never seen.
Starting next week, some 400 specially trained Barack Obama campaign "fellows" will fan out across Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, for an intensive six weeks of registering voters, mobilizing volunteers, as well as working to bring Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters into the fold.
The Obama campaign has 20 paid organizers in the state — compared to John McCain's two — and within days is expected to name its Florida campaign team. With more than 150,000 Florida supporters signed up for volunteer duty, the campaign is talking about an unprecedented voter mobilization effort.
Much as the Bush-Cheney campaign roared to Florida victory in 2004 with neighbor-to-neighbor campaigning, the Obama campaign sees a volunteer army large enough not only to target key voting precincts, but even specific streets and blocks.
"Field programs have made a tremendous difference in races in Florida that were targeted, but this is going to be that on steroids. We've never seen a statewide effort like this before,'' said Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman.
The campaign started a voter registration push in Florida and across the country in May, but the real campaign kicks into gear this weekend with two two-day training sessions in Gainesville and Tamarac for the 400 "fellows" assigned to Florida.
These are volunteers, including many college students and retirees, who applied for the six-week program in which they commit at least 30 hours a week to the campaign. Two-thirds of the fellows are Floridians, and the campaign is providing housing through local party activists.
"It's our sense that the environment in Florida could sustain and grow a very vibrant grass roots campaign," said Obama campaign spokesman Josh Earnest.
Obama is a former community organizer himself, and his campaign's commitment to volunteer-driven, grass roots organizing paid off as he won caucus after caucus and racked up more delegates than Clinton could overcome. Now, the campaign is turning those field operations toward November.
"Today, I am proud to announce that our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every single state,'' deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said in an e-mail to supporters Monday. "The network of volunteers and the infrastructure built up during the historic primary season — on behalf of all the Democratic campaigns — have given us an enormous and unprecedented opportunity in the general election."
The exceptions were Florida and Michigan, where Obama laid no groundwork because the states were punished for holding primaries earlier than allowed by the national party. The campaign acknowledges it has to catch up in Florida, a state that can be tough to organize because of its size.
Among those whom the Chicago-based campaign is considering to run the Florida campaign? Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic Party star who has helped his party win back nine state House seats in the past two years.
Florida is a must-win state for McCain, and recent polls show him leading Obama by as much as 10 points and as few as 4 points. The Florida GOP has long enjoyed a stronger turnout operation than Democrats, and McCain has Gov. Charlie Crist's political machine behind him.
McCain currently has a state director and regional director working out of his Tallahassee headquarters, and by the end of June is expected to have opened several state offices and have at least two dozen campaign staffers in Florida.
"I don't think we have ever made the claim that we are going to out-field-staff them,'' McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky said. "We will have the bodies on the ground to do what we need to do from a get-out-the-vote perspective and to do what we need from the political perspective."
The Obama campaign acknowledges it has work to do winning over Clinton's many supporters. But Obama has an advantage that most campaigns, including John Kerry in 2004 and McCain this year, appear to lack: legions of passionate grass roots supporters.
In Florida alone, the Obama campaign counts more than 61,000 people who have donated less than $200 to the campaign, people who can be tapped again and again for small donations.
"In the 15 years that I've been here, the Democrats' volunteer apparatus has atrophied to such an extent that it's helped Republicans maintain their power," Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh of Broward County said. "If young people in Florida respond to Obama like they have around the country, they should have a very active field program.''
In 2004, Kerry had thousands of volunteers across the state working to turn out voters, as well as thousands of paid canvassers working with independent Democratic-leaning groups. But the Kerry operation didn't kick into gear until late in the campaign, and the paid canvassers proved to be no match for the Bush-Cheney volunteer-focused effort.
"If there's not an enthusiasm and excitement from the ground up, it's going to be limited in its success,'' said Democratic consultant Jeff Garcia, contrasting Kerry's Florida operation to Obama's. "What Obama's doing is empowering people to be active around the state, and it was developed in a genuinely organic way, out of enthusiasm and excitement."
Obama has come to Florida only a handful of times in the past 15 months compared to McCain, who is expected to be in Orlando on Friday, his 19th trip to the state. Obama is expected to campaign in Jacksonville on June 20 and Miami on June 21.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.