Obama campaign hits the streets of Florida

Barack Obama supporter Alana Peck talks with registered Democrat Jerry Dunmeyer at his Pinellas Point home Saturday.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Barack Obama supporter Alana Peck talks with registered Democrat Jerry Dunmeyer at his Pinellas Point home Saturday.

ST. PETERSBURG — Fed up with the status quo in U.S. politics, Lauren Andersen quit her job at an English-language newspaper in Chile and joined Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign recently.

Now, the Connecticut native's legs are lined with mosquito bites, a farmer's tan is visible beneath her white button-up blouse, and occasionally Republicans yell at her.

It's all in a day's work, the Obama staff member told volunteers who were about to canvass streets in south St. Petersburg Saturday.

And no matter what, she added, "don't be rude."

Andersen was 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 has already 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 offices have sprung up in Miami Gardens, Altamonte Springs and DeLand, in addition to new headquarters in Tampa.

Some political veterans say they hear 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 staffers here, but few had Florida experience and even fewer had been hired as early as July, political strategists and former Kerry staffers say.

On Saturday, at least nine Obama volunteers and two staff members gathered at Lake Vista Park in St. Petersburg. The volunteers then filed into the surrounding neighborhoods, passing out registration forms and chatting up voters.

Jordan Potter, 13, and Alana Peck, 33, were knocking on doors in Greater Pinellas Point when they came across Republican Brian Hancock in his driveway.

They suggested he check out www.barackobama.com. "Obama can really bring us together," Peck said.

"Change is good," said Hancock, who is leaning toward Obama. "Something has got to give."

In Tampa, 10 Obama supporters arrived at the downtown library Saturday morning for door-to-door campaigning.

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."

What the Obama Florida campaign is really 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 staffers, 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 staffers — 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 staffers.

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Obama campaign hits the streets of Florida 07/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 3:38pm]

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