Obama Courts the Unregistered

Presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama wants to rewrite the list of states where Democrats will be competitive in the fall election.

The Obama campaign says it's running a 50-state strategy — with millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers unleashed nationwide for voter registration efforts. But Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand says a few regions will get special attention.

"We're certainly going to have a special emphasis on Southern states where we do see a huge number of potential voters who are not registered to vote in the elections," Hildebrand says.

In those states, many of the eligible but unregistered voters are African American. In Virginia, there are 360,000 unregistered black citizens, and in North Carolina, 340,000. In Georgia, there are more than half a million potential black voters who are not registered.

To capture those voters without alienating others, the campaign needs volunteers like 18-year-old Matthew Harris to work in their own communities. Harris and his friends recently took the effort to register voters to a huge hip-hop block party in Atlanta. It was the boys and their clipboards versus girls in tiny shorts, roving dance crews and microphone-wielding DJs in the battle for the attention of potential voters.

Desmond Pennamon learned firsthand how hard it is to find the unregistered.

"That's the hardest part. I ask all these people to register, and most of them say they've already registered, or no," he says.

Some say they have a criminal record and don't believe Pennamon when he says they can register now that they've completed their sentences. Luckily, that wasn't the case with 33-year-old Larry Odom, who did register that day.

Odom says he just never cared much for politics.

"But this is like a history-making type deal," he says. "I never thought in my lifetime that we were going to see somebody — a minority, pretty much, running for president or even getting this close. This is the first time I'm actually excited."

So are there enough Larry Odoms out there to make certain states competitive this fall? Perhaps, if the Libertarian candidate takes some votes, or if some young white voters break from the edges of white Republican majorities, says Merle Black, a political science professor at Atlanta's Emory University.

"Then it's possible for Obama to pull off an upset here in Georgia," Black says. "I wouldn't bet on it, necessarily, but I could see how the Obama campaign would see that that's a realistic strategy."

Black says that while the number of African Americans who are not registered may be higher than other groups, registered black voters already go to the polls at roughly the same rates as whites. He's not sure how much higher those numbers realistically will go in Southern, mostly Republican states.

Where this voter registration strategy could matter is if — based on that foundation of black support — Obama forces presumptive Republican nominee John McCain to spend time and money in traditional Republican safe spots.

That's something McCain campaign adviser Charlie Black — no relation to the professor — says they aren't worried about yet.

"There are obviously some people who haven't participated that could be attracted to his candidacy, but we are going to register new Republicans in those states, too, this summer and this fall, so hopefully we will get that done and equalize the difference," he says.

But analysts say the truth will lie in the candidates' schedules. Putting money and volunteers into these states is one thing; putting in the candidates' time is another.

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