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Florida Democrats try to harness Obama supporters

Florida Democrats are preparing to tap into Barack Obama's grass roots machine to build the biggest political operation ever seen from the state party.

Normally at this early stage of an election cycle, the chronically cash-strapped Florida Democratic Party is shedding jobs and struggling to keep the lights on. Not this year. State party leaders expect soon to hire dozens of professional organizers to harness and assist Obama's vast army of volunteers.

"This is the first time in modern history that Florida Democrats will be aggressively organizing so early,'' said Leonard Joseph, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, who expects as many as 40 full-time field organizers to fan across the state by late spring. "At a period of time when the Republicans are constricting, we will be expanding our grass roots efforts in all parts of the state."

Specific plans and goals are still under discussion in Washington and Tallahassee. But the ebullient talk among Florida Democrats stems from an ambitious and uncertain plan often dubbed Obama 2.0 — an effort to keep engaged the vast and potent base of true believers that helped elect Obama president in November.

On Nov. 4, the election was over and Obama not only had won the White House, but he also still had an arsenal most campaigns could only dream of: 13 million e-mail addresses and a massive database pinpointing precinct by precinct and block by block the supporters who gave money or knocked on hundreds of doors or hosted house parties.

Rather than let that machine fizzle, Obama's political team launched Organizing for America, based within the Democratic National Committee offices.

"As president, I will need the help of all Americans to meet the challenges that lie ahead," Obama said last month in a video message to supporters. "That's why I'm asking people like you who fought for change during the campaign to continue fighting for change in your communities.

"Since the election, hundreds of thousands of you have shared your ideas about how this movement should move forward, and we've listened carefully."

The volunteer-driven effort initially is focused on taking feedback and promoting issues, such as the economic stimulus package. Activists across the state and country have been holding conference calls with Obama's political team leaders, talking about improving their voter database, training sessions and enhanced online organizing tools.

"People like myself they contact and ask if we can organize a meeting, so I e-mailed 15 people and invited them to attend a get-together,'' said St. Petersburg resident Alex Haak, a former New Jersey mayor who recently formed the Obama Action Club and hosted a meeting of Obama supporters Friday. "It's to keep our momentum going, to stay behind our president. Once elections are over people just fall astray, but us grass roots workers and believers, want to stay involved."

The initial focus of Organizing for America has been on specific issues — Obama supporters in recent days have been holding house parties across the state and country about the stimulus package — but energized and organized Obama supporters could have a major impact on elections up and down the ballot.

In Florida, the plan is to have paid staffers in place to assist the citizens already actively working with Organizing for America.

Big questions remain, including whether fundraising is adequate to match the ambitions and the level of resources that actually wind up committed to Florida. Also uncertain is whether enthusiasm for Obama would apply to other Democrats who might run in 2010. Obama won Florida, for instance, but had minimal coattails helping other Democrats on the ballot.

"The million-dollar question is how to translate the activism and enthusiasm that Barack Obama was able to create and translate it down the line,'' said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who managed Obama's Florida campaign. "That's the challenge, but fundamentally the state is better for Democrats than ever before because of what Barack Obama was able to do. It's still up to candidates to have compelling messages and drive up enthusiasm."

While Florida Democratic leaders are talking about dramatically ramping up their political operation this year, the state GOP is cutting expenses. The party has shut field offices in Tampa and Miami and is considering shutting one in Orlando. The party has about 10 field staffers across the state, down from the 16 initially budgeted.

But state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer said the party is launching a major voter registration push in all 67 counties. Taking a lesson from Obama's campaign, Greer also is pushing an ambitious technology initiative focused on improving communication through areas such as text messaging and Facebook.

He scoffed at the claim that Democrats would have 40 field staffers on the ground in Florida anytime soon.

"Cut that 70 percent and you might have an accurate number," Greer said. "I've seen what goes on in state parties."

Then again, Florida Republican leaders repeatedly dismissed the claims that Obama would put hundreds of paid staffers in Florida last year. By Election Day, more than 600 Obama campaign staffers were in place.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Florida Democrats try to harness Obama supporters 02/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 8:52am]
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