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It's a big night for the democratic presidential candidates as they hold their latest debate. It's in Las Vegas. Nevada holds one of the earliest nominating contests. Caucuses are just two months off. The candidates have also been pouring resources into Iowa where the caucuses are even sooner, exactly seven weeks away. Polls for the race there in a dead heat among Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama. We'll hear about the Iowa race in this segment, how immigration is playing as an important issue, and how the Obama campaign has been trying to grow its grassroots support. We'll start with that report from NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: At the Obama headquarters in Des Moines yesterday morning, a group of volunteers is watching a YouTube video on a laptop. It's highlights of Obama's speech at Saturday night's Jefferson Jackson Dinner.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): That's why I'm asking you to stand with me. That's why I'm asking you to caucus for me.
LIASSON: There's a cane leaning on the conference table, and a portable oxygen tank and a duffel bag on the floor. This is the campaign's biweekly senior coffee. Jack Navin is a mainstay. With his Iowa State hat, sporting buttons that ridicule the Republicans and praise Obama.
Mr. JACK NAVIN (Des Moines Resident): I remember John F. Kennedy in 1960, that was the first time that I voted, and Obama generates the enthusiasm with the voters that John F. Kennedy did in 1960.
LIASSON: Adam Ukman is the field organizer assigned to this group. He wants these hardcore supporters to go out and find more converts.
Mr. ADAM UKMAN (Field Organizer, Obama Campaign): You guys have done a ton, but I'm going to keep asking more of you because I need you, and we need you, and Barack Obama needs you. And so the next time you come back, bring three new people with you or bring three supporter colleges. You brought one. Yeah. You need two more. Whatever we can do to broaden and widen the circle that we have.
Mr. NAVIN: I'm physically unable to do much, but I could work phones, I guess.
Mr. UKMAN: Maybe. And I may even be talking about holding a coffee in your home for a while and…
Unidentified Woman #1: More than one.
Mr. UKMAN: More than one. Well, let's do it.
LIASSON: Focusing on seniors in Iowa is a no-brainer. All the campaigns here do it because historically, the majority of Iowa caucus-goers are over 55. But every campaign is also trying to grow its own vote, looking for new supporters where they have the best opportunities to find them. For Obama, it's young people. And in Iowa, he's targeting very young people - high school students like Morgan Miller, a senior at Valley High who first heard about Obama through Facebook.
Ms. MORGAN MILLER (Valley High Student): Like, everyone kind of knows who Barack is, especially high school people because he's made an effort to have that happen.
LIASSON: There are high school nights at the Obama headquarters here, and special Obama posters designed to fit on a narrow high school locker. And then, there are the Barack Stars.
Ms. MILLER: Barack Stars is like a club at Valley, and that was the only club that any presidential candidate started. So…
Unidentified Man: Is there a Hillary…
Ms. MILLER: No, there's no Hillary club or Mitt Romney club.
LIASSON: In Iowa, as long as you turn 18 by Election Day 2008, you can participate in the January caucuses. So Morgan is targeting classmates who turn 17 by November 4th of this year.
Ms. MILLER: To be honest, I didn't really know what a caucus was because -until I started volunteering here. And I realized what a big deal it was and how every person really counts. And so I've been, like, really active in trying to get, like, other seniors involved. It's pretty exciting and I'm - it's going to be cool to actually be able to be involved with the next election and have your say.
LIASSON: Morgan Miller, as they say in the Obama campaign, is fired up and ready to go. But a lot of political veterans think going after younger voters, especially high school kids, is a fool's errand, because so few of them actually turn out. They make up a tiny part of the caucuses. In 2004, only 3.9 percent were under 25. But Obama field organizer Caroline Grey, who at 23 is a young voter herself, says the Barack Stars offer something more than individual votes.
Ms. CAROLINE GREY (Field Organizer, Obama Campaign): These girls are my most devoted volunteers. I mean, they come in and spread the message better than almost, you know, anybody I've ever met. You know, it's never just Morgan's caucus vote, it's the thousands of people that she's talked to since she came on board.
LIASSON: Caroline Grey knows that in the past, the youth vote has not lived up to its hype. Howard Dean's effort in Iowa was the Children's Crusade of 2004, lots of young recruits, but no victory.
Ms. GREY: There's a lot of skepticism about the youth and the Facebook quality of Obama supporters. But I look at these kids and I know they've been here with me every single day, to think that they wouldn't be there on caucus night - I just don't believe it. I mean, on caucus night, all that matters is who shows up. And our people, over and over again, just keep doing that.
Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah. I know.
Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah. I called at around ten. She was home.
Unidentified Woman #4: Yeah. She knows their numbers at home.
Unidentified Woman #2: She's calls home - a home marshal. Okay.
Unidentified Woman #3: Because I'm calling - yeah.
Unidentified Woman #2: Our home…
Unidentified Woman #3: Okay. (Unintelligible).
LIASSON: At an Obama field office in suburban Des Moines, Morgan Miller and two other Barack Stars from Valley High aged 14 and 15 are making phone calls. The Obama campaign's method is repeated personal contact. All these girls have worked these same phone lists over and over again.
Ms. LILY CARTER(ph): Hi. This is Lily Carter of the Barack Obama campaign. I know he last time we talked, you were considering Obama, but not fully on board. Oh, you are? All right. Can I ask why you're supporting Hillary at this time? All right. Well, thanks for your time. Bye.
LIASSON: You can't win them all. But some pitches are more effective than others. Morgan got a vote for Obama without even leaving home. She canvassed her own mother.
Ms. MILLER: She was actually a Hillary supporter. And then I said (unintelligible) Barack by showing her that, like, Barack's a lot - like, he's really sincere and he, like, he's a breath of fresh air. But my dad's a Republican. So it didn't really work out.
LIASSON: Although there's a relatively small universe of Iowa Democrats who are habitual caucus-goers, about 125,000 attended last time, there's always a lot of turnover. This year, close to half of the participants are expected to be first timers. And according to David Yepsen, the influential Des Moines register political columnist and veteran caucus watcher, those first timers can be the key to success.
Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Political Columnist, Des Moines Register): We do know that throughout the history of the caucuses, a candidate who can turn out new people is going to be a guy, or woman, who does well. I mean, George McGovern in 1972 with the anti-war activists and Pat Robertson in 1988 with the religious conservatives. These were new people who came out and they made the difference. So if Barack Obama can get young people out, they may make a difference.
LIASSON: Obama's isn't the only campaign trying to pull this off. John Edwards is looking for new union voters. Hillary Clinton is targeting blue-collar women, even arranging childcare so they can come out on caucus night. This kind of painstaking grassroots outreach can only make a difference at the margins. But in a race that's essentially a three-way dead heat, the margins are what will matter. And that's why all the candidates are hunting for support in Iowa one Democratic voter at a time.
Mara Liasson, NPR News.
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