Obama Volunteers Trained in Organizing

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Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's supporters are more than enthusiastic volunteers — many of them have been trained in the rudiments of old-fashioned community organizing.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The next big moment in the race for the White House comes on Tuesday. Four states hold primaries, and in this part of the program we're going to visit two of them, starting with Texas, which also holds caucuses.

That's where the campaign of Democrat Barack Obama is training thousands of volunteers in the rudiments of community organizing. It's an old-fashioned concept enhanced by a modern computer network.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: Anyone who's heard any of Barack Obama's stump speeches knows that, after college, he worked as a community organizer on Chicago's Southside.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): And it was the best education I ever had because it taught me ordinary people can do great things when they're working together.

JAFFE: This retelling of his story took place last month in Nevada, but the focus on organizing is evident every day in his campaign offices in Texas.

Ms. LINDA CROACHER(ph) (Volunteer): So I'm hoping that everybody's here for precinct captain training. Does that sound like what you came in for?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, ma'am.

Ms. CROACHER: Okay, then. Super. All right.

JAFFE: Linda Croacher is a volunteer from Idaho, now in Austin to train other volunteers as Obama campaign precinct captains. At lunchtime on a weekday, there are about 20 people here, black, white, young and old. This is what to expect, Croacher tells them, when they sign up on the Web site, texasprecinctcaptains.com.

Ms. CROACHER: Twenty-four hours later you're going to get a call from someone out of this office, a field organizer. And you now have a resource back here at the campaign headquarters. But what you can also get online is basically tutorials, there's video training, and most importantly, there's a list of voters in your precinct. Reach out and wrap your arms around them, okay?

JAFFE: That information is power, says Buffy Wicks, who's in charge of field organizing for the Obama campaign in 14 western states.

Ms. BUFFY WICKS (Head of Field Organizing, Obama Campaign): We are giving folks access to our most precious commodity, which is the voter file. You know, and a lot of people wouldn't do that. But we think that in order to really utilize the strength, which is our people, we need to give them the training and the information. And we say to them, this is your campaign; here's the keys, you're driving.

JAFFE: In Barack Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," he writes about the advice he got from the guy who hired him as an organizer. Go towards people's centers, he tells him, the stuff that makes them tick, otherwise you'll never form the relationships you need to get them involved.

In Austin, Linda Croacher tells the new precinct captains that the best way to persuade the undecided is to reveal their own centers.

Ms. CROACHER: I was wondering about this to be honest with you. This is a little Kumbaya-ish for me, where you sit down and you say, hey, let me tell you why I'm doing this or my personal story about getting involved with the campaign.

JAFFE: So they break up into small groups and practice. Most of their stories are variations on the one that Leslie Charming(ph) tells.

Ms. LESLIE CHARMING (Obama Volunteer): I was in the Peace Corp for almost a decade but I became cynical and bitter, and I resisted getting into this election at all, until I heard him talk and I saw his face. So I have to tell you I am back with a vengeance and a passion and I…

JAFFE: Once the new precinct captains leave this room it'll be up to them how they reach out to their neighbors. Maybe phone calls, maybe canvassing. Last Saturday Obama precinct captains hosted 260 house parties across Texas.

Mr. TOM NYLAND(ph) (Obama Precinct Captain): Four-hour shifts, if you can make a four-hour shift or if you can only make part of that…

JAFFE: Tom Nyland, the precinct captain in a new South Austin development, used his house party to organize his neighbors to get out the vote next Tuesday.

Mr. NYLAND: And if you have an aversion to anything - if you don't like the phone bank, if you don't want to stand on a corner holding a sign, we're not going to make you do anything you don't want to do.

JAFFE: Some of the people were here because Nyland got their phone numbers from the voter rolls. Some came because they saw his party posted on another Obama campaign Web site called Mybo(ph). It'll show you campaign activities within 20 miles of your house. None of these people had met before this afternoon. But as they chatted over chicken salad sandwiches and soft drinks, Tom Nyland said he doesn't think of this as the Barack Obama campaign; he thinks of it as the Barack Obama movement, and he expects it to continue past election day.

Mr. NYLAND: Once he's president we are going to be the ground force to make sure that our local reps understand that we are totally behind him. So we are going to keep organized. And I think we all realize that it's going to take effort on our part but it's going to be worth it, that's for sure.

JAFFE: But first things first, Obama's not even the nominee yet. So the party ended with Nyland and some of his neighbors piling into a car and heading off to one of the locations where they can cast their ballots early. They needed to get that out of the way. They expect to be really busy on primary day.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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What's at Stake in the March 4 Primaries?

To view a photo gallery of the presidential candidates leading up to the March 4 primaries. hide caption

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Hillary Clinton i

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

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Hillary Clinton

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio.

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Barack Obama i

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

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Barack Obama

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas.

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Read a State-by-State Analysis of March 4 Primaries:

John McCain i

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

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John McCain

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont on March 4 are seen as make-or-break for the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton needs to triumph in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio to halt the momentum of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has won 11 consecutive nominating contests since Super Tuesday (including the Virgin Islands and the Democrats Abroad Global Primary). Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said that Texas and Ohio are must-win states if she is going to have a chance at taking the nomination.

For Obama, a successful March 4 could help nudge him toward the nomination and solidify the growing perception that he is the party's front-runner. He will still have to court the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates, who act as free agents and who can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state's popular vote. (Both Obama and Clinton have been wooing the superdelegates relentlessly.)

The two candidates have been campaigning heavily in Texas (193 delegates) and Ohio (141), focusing especially on those states' respective Hispanic and working-class voters through rallies and advertisements.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain has swept recent primaries in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin, and now delivers speeches with the confidence of a man who is certain to be his party's nominee.

But a recent New York Times article proved to be a major distraction. The article outlined McCain's allegedly close relationship with a female lobbyist, with hints of a friendship that went beyond the professional. (Some commentators make the argument that for someone who stakes his reputation on his honesty and "straight talk," the article has the potential to prove damaging. Others say the story could ultimately help McCain with more conservative Republicans by making the argument that it was an effort by the liberal media to hurt the Arizona senator's prospects.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remains a candidate, though since Super Tuesday, when he did well in the South, he has won in just two states, Louisiana and Kansas. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who has not won anywhere, is staying in the race as well, though he faces a challenge back home for his House seat in the March 4 primary.) Huckabee has said he will continue as a candidate until he or McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to officially capture the nomination.

The Candidates

The Democrats: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

The Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul

TEXAS

The Democrats: Clinton is hoping that her strong ties to Texas will give her a boost. She worked in the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago, registering voters — a fact she often mentions on local campaign stops. Texans also did well under the Bill Clinton White House, earning posts in the Treasury, Energy and Interior departments, along with two ambassadorships.

But Obama is on a roll. The night of Feb. 19, when he was declaring victory in the Wisconsin primary, he did so from Houston — signifying the importance he places on the state. Texas has an odd dual primary/caucus system, and Obama has done very well in states that hold caucuses; in fact, with the exception of Nevada, he has swept every caucus state.

New Texas polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat.

Texas Democrats must vote in their senatorial districts by ballot, and then also attend a caucus immediately after the polls close. One hundred and twenty-six delegates will be awarded based on the primary, while 42 Democratic delegates will come from the caucus.

The Republicans: Arizona Sen. John McCain has been popular with Hispanics since he co-authored the ultimately unsuccessful immigration bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Huckabee, whose record also shows a more moderate viewpoint on immigration than some others in the party would prefer, has been campaigning in Houston and San Antonio.

Hispanics are the key demographic to court in Texas and could make up as much as 40 percent of the total electorate. The candidates have been running Spanish-language ads; the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin was co-sponsored by the Spanish television network Univision.

Another key demographic: African-American voters, expected to be 25 percent of the primary electorate.


OHIO

Ohio's sluggish economy is the key issue in the upcoming primary; unemployment in the Buckeye State is greater than in any state in the region other than Michigan. Candidates of both parties have talked about their plans to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio's manufacturing jobs have left the area. The state has also been hit hard by high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

The Democrats: A recent poll seems to suggest that Obama's support in the Buckeye State is increasing, though Clinton appears to be holding a lead, however tenuous. Two Ohio labor unions, with a combined membership of about a 100,000, switched their backing from former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama. The Illinois senator also has received the national backing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million truck drivers and warehouse workers. Obama's plans for affordable health care, as well as tax credits for low- and middle-income workers and seniors, could appeal to the state's working class.

Clinton has also campaigned in Ohio, most recently in Youngstown and Columbus. She is hoping to appeal to women and working-class voters, who have made up her base in past primaries. Her health care plan calls for universal coverage, and she has proposed a $70 billion economic stimulus plan that includes a moratorium on foreclosures and an assistance fund for at-risk borrowers. Clinton has started running ads that appeal to blue-collar workers. Her latest Ohio ad begins with the phrase: "You pour coffee, fix hair. You work the night shift at the local hospital. You're often overworked, underpaid, and sometimes overlooked...She understands."

Ohio is not used to playing a decisive role in the nominating process. The last time that happened was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's victory in the June primary state effectively awarded him the Democratic presidential nomination.


RHODE ISLAND

The Democrats: The Clinton name holds much weight in Rhode Island, a state that Hillary Clinton often visited with her husband when he was president. She also has helped fundraise for several state politicians who double as superdelegates, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicciline.

But as Obama keeps building momentum in his campaign, the question becomes: Will he make inroads into Clinton's base? Michelle Obama spent an afternoon campaigning in Rhode Island, where her brother is a basketball coach at Brown University. Providence is a college town, and its university-age voters are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.

The Republicans: McCain visited Rhode Island in mid-February to try to appeal to New England's more moderate Republicans. He won Rhode Island's 2000 presidential primary with 60 percent of the vote.


VERMONT

The candidates have not made Vermont a major priority in this March 4 contest: It offers just 15 Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates.

The Democrats: None of the candidates have campaigned in the state so far. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont Democrats have far surpassed the state's Republicans in fundraising for this election cycle, with $1.4 million going to Democratic candidates and $322,000 to Republicans.

University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson predicts that Obama will do well in the state, since Vermont has a history of supporting maverick candidates, such as Howard Dean in 2000. (Vermont also has a senator who is an independent.)

The Republicans: McCain recently made a quick campaign stop. Huckabee is not expected to do well and is not targeting the state.

Vermont has an open primary, meaning residents can cross party lines to vote for the candidate of their choice.

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