LARGO — Unemployed Palm Harbor resident George Riley may be among the most important and overlooked political figures in Florida these days.
"Hi, I'm calling on behalf of the Florida Republican Party and John McCain,'' the 27-year-old said, hunched over a stack of papers one night last week with a cell phone pressed to his cheek. "Currently in the race for president, do you support John McCain, Barack Obama, or are you undecided? John McCain? Okay.''
He filled in a bubble on a pre-printed sheet and prepared to dial again. In the mid-Pinellas office with seven other phone bank volunteers, Riley is volunteering at least 20 hours a week to help McCain mobilize Florida voters.
It's a good thing too, because a lot of Republicans have been getting antsy. Amid the growing visibility of a huge Obama campaign under way in this must-win state for McCain, loyal Republicans have been waiting for signs of life on their side.
"Whatever they're doing on the grass roots campaign clearly is not working,'' said Republican consultant Doug McAlarney of Tallahassee. "It's clear if they want to run a grass roots campaign, they have to do something different."
Bill Bunkley of Tampa brought up the stark difference between this year's effort and the one from 2004 while talking with listeners on his WTBN Christian radio show: "I'm not seeing the chain e-mails, or the kind of activity we saw four years ago from the Bush campaign.''
The worry by Florida Republicans is justified 90 days out from election day, with the huge Obama operation under way here. It's also probably premature, given signs that the GOP machine is revving up with more canvassing events and phone banks like the one where Riley works.
But with well over 200 full-time staffers in Florida — four times as many as McCain and the Republicans — and some 150,000 Florida volunteers registered online, Obama is building a Democratic campaign machine that could finally challenge the GOP's mastery of ground-game tactics.
"In a volunteer-driven movement like this, our role in a lot of ways is customer service oriented. We have to make this campaign as accessible to regular voters who want to help Barack Obama as we can,'' said Steve Schale, the veteran Florida strategist leading Obama's Florida campaign. "Our challenge really is how to structure the campaign in a way to empower people who want to help Obama but not get in their way."
That means not only paid organizers and offices in nontraditional places like Sebring and Destin, but a vast social networking system and online tools that help supporters organize their own activities and track them at the same time. Volunteers earn points in the Obama system and top earners win perks, like those in Orlando who got to meet the candidate himself earlier this month.
The Illinois senator proved during the primaries that he can attract infrequent voters, and deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand ticks off the giant targets of opportunity in America's biggest battleground state: 630,000 eligible Hispanic voters not yet on the rolls, 593,000 African-Americans not registered to vote, 236,000 18- to 24-year-olds.
"We need to expand the electorate because we know the election is going to be so close,'' said Hildebrand, who is overseeing a nationwide field organization concentrated in Florida and 21 other states.
Indeed, Obama so far is out-organizing McCain in Florida and since June has spent more than $5-million on Florida TV spots. McCain has yet to spend a penny on TV, but polls still show a dead heat here.
GOP wrote playbook
In Florida, Republicans have distinct advantages. The GOP has won eight of the past 10 election cycles, and the Florida GOP pretty much wrote the voter mobilization playbook that helped turn Karl Rove into a political superstar.
Democrats touted an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort in Florida in 2004 and out-registered Republicans by 60,000 voters. In the end, though, Republicans turned out nearly 76 percent of the new voters they registered and Democrats only turned out 66 percent — a net Republican advantage of 138 votes.
It may not seem like much, but Republicans say it shows that while Democrats tout voter registration, the GOP knows how to get people to the polls.
"I will concede that they will probably have more paid staff and offices, but what we ultimately have are people who are battle-tested, have been through this before. Florida in many ways has been the model of how you do a turnout operation that we use nationally,'' said Mike DuHaime, who took over McCain's national field operation in July.
He has instituted accountability measures to keep track of whether state organizers are meeting their targets on everything from phone calls and door-knocks to precinct captains.
"Right at this very moment Florida is exactly where we believe we need to be,'' he said.
Republican activist Marjorie Milford confessed she was worried about how many people might show up to the opening of the new campaign office in St. Petersburg last week, but was thrilled to see a solid crowd of at least 60.
"There were a bunch of them that said, 'We've been waiting. We know the Democrats are doing a lot and we wondered where you were,' " said Milford. "But I think we're getting going at the normal time when we should be going and we're on the right track. We've had very few turn-downs (from prospective volunteers)."
Pinellas is Florida's biggest bellwether county, and GOP chairman Tony DiMatteo noted that where Republicans in 2004 had one paid field operative handling much of Tampa Bay, this year they have one each handling Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco.
DeMatteo said setting a good pace is important to keep fatigue from setting in as the election draws near. He said the McCain campaign is building just as it should.
"Everybody's getting revved up,'' he said. "We can't kill our volunteers now. We have our national convention Sept. 4 and when we get back we'll go full boat."
And the Obama campaign? At least 12 field staffers already are organizing volunteers in Pinellas, 10 are in Hillsborough and several in Pasco, where an Obama field office will open next week in New Port Richey.
Won't miss one voter
Florida is a swing state that reflects the national mood, so if either candidate leads the national polls comfortably in November they'll likely win Florida and the White House. But a superior get-out-the-vote effort can mean an advantage of several percentage points on election day.
In case Democrats are feeling cocky about snatching Florida's 27 electoral votes, it's worth recalling the buzz then about all the independent groups mobilizing infrequent voters to help John Kerry win Florida in 2004. He lost the state by five percentage points.
The Kerry campaign staff at this stage in 2004 numbered in the dozens, but the Democratic group America Coming Together had some 70 paid staffers on the ground, and hundreds of part-time paid canvassers focused on registering and turning out new voters.
There are a host of new factors favoring the Democrats this year compared to 2004, including Obama's financial advantage, the fact the Democratic campaign activities are well-coordinated and that many Democrats are actually excited about their candidate rather than merely opposed to President Bush.
"I only worked on the Kerry campaign three months in 2004, but I can tell you it is night and day compared with the Obama campaign," said Jim Jackson, 64, of St. Petersburg, who was knocking on doors for Obama in Gulfport last week. "I've never seen anything like it before, in campaigns or the private sector. These guys are down to the most minute detail, and they are not going to miss a single prospective voter."
Longtime party activists say they have never seen so many volunteers turning up, even in areas long ignored by Democratic presidential campaigns. Lois Swaboda of the weekly Apalachicola Carrabelle Times last week showed up for an organization meeting where 20 people were expected. In fact, 70 people turned out.
Likewise, field office openings last week drew more than 200 people in Tampa, more than 400 in Orlando and 500 in Jacksonville.
Even Republicans were talking about an enthusiasm gap after John McCain appeared in Panama City with country music star John Rich on Aug. 1, and an estimated 700 people showed up. In 2004, McCain was just a surrogate for President Bush in Sarasota and drew 1,400 people in early August. Then in Panama City, McCain was there to see 23,000 turnout for Bush.
"You really can't compare this to 2004. This is more in line with eight years ago,' said Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, noting that the incumbent president had been building a campaign structure long before the election and that McCain's campaigning is building steadily toward a flood of activity in the final stretch. "All that's coming, and you're going to see the final 60 days as a sprint."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.