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The presidential race is so tight, candidates are looking for support even in unusual places - Alaska, for instance. It takes forever to get to that solidly Republican state from Iowa or New Hampshire. Nonetheless, Democrat Barack Obama has an official campaign office there.
Annie Feidt of the Alaska Public Radio Network reports it may be a first for a major candidate.
ANNIE FEIDT: Ray Rivera didn't know what to expect when the Obama campaign sent him to Anchorage in the depths of the dark Alaska winter. But it certainly wasn't 35 degrees and late rain. In an Anchorage parking lot, Rivera shows off his attempt at proper preparation, a brand new jacket that's not even zipped up.
Mr. RAY RIVERA (Obama Campaign Staffer): I bought this like two days ago. You know, like I'm going to Alaska. And then I like wore my waterproof shoes. And I was like, okay, I bought an Obama long sleeve. I was like, going to Alaska. I have an Obama cap. I have gloves in here. And then I got off the plane. I was like, okay, are you kidding me? Did this really happen? It's colder in Denver.
FEIDT: If Rivera had stayed in Anchorage for a week, he could have experienced the frigid temperature he was hoping for. But the Western states director for the Obama campaign had only 24 hours to hire a state director and sign the lease on new office space. He also squeezed in a caucus training meeting.
Mr. RIVERA: You guys are making this really easy because you keep nodding your heads. I like it. You're going to be...
FEIDT: Inside a room that could hold 300 people, about 20 sit on plastic chairs listening to Rivera's message. He passes out handouts highlighting some recent poll numbers.
Mr. RIVERA: So look at the first one. It talks about early state polling, shows Barack - says Obama '08 at the top. Do you guys have that one up? Yeah.
FEIDT: The campaign's effort in Alaska is part of a larger strategy to inspire grassroots support beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. Alaska is one of 14 states that moved its primary or caucus to the earliest date allowed by the National Democratic Party, February 5th. Now more than 20 states will pick a nominee on that day. And Rivera says the campaign is slowly opening offices in those Super Tuesday states.
Mr. RIVERA: We're not just going to campaign in the same old states. We're going to go to places that typically haven't had Democratic campaigns. And mostly that's because of Senator Obama's appeal amongst independents in independent type states. And so I was happy to see that we were even coming all the way here to Alaska.
FEIDT: Democrats in Alaska are shocked and delighted by the development. No one can remember the last time a serious presidential contender from any party opened up an official office in the state, including Democratic State Representative Lindsey Holmes, who attended the caucus training.
Representative LINDSEY HOLMES (Democrat, Alaska): This is I think a highly unusual move and shows the increasing importance of small states, then I think that that's a really good thing for the - for Alaska and for the U.S. to put an emphasis on every state and not just a handful of players.
FEIDT: The Alaska contingent doesn't exactly have a lot of sway at the national convention. On Super Tuesday alone, more than 2,000 Democratic delegates are up for grabs. Alaska has just 18.
John Geer is a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, another state where Obama has a new office. He says given the campaign's resources, the strategy is smart politics.
Professor JOHN GEER (Vanderbilt University): You know, you want to build a lot of excitement about your candidacy across the country and you want to, you know, signal to the news media and to people who are potentially going to contribute money to your campaign, et cetera, that you're, you know, you're going to compete in all these states.
FEIDT: No other Democratic candidates have said they're going to open an office in Alaska. But Republican Ron Paul just announced he'll be following Obama's lead.
Elizabeth Kane(ph), who's an Obama fan, says all the attention is good for the state.
Ms. ELIZABETH KANE: Right now people have been kind of feeling, well, no one really cares about Alaska. (Unintelligible) we're off up there and we're not important. And I think this is definitely going to put a focus on Alaska.
FEIDT: Still, Alaskans hoping to catch a glimpse of a real live candidate will probably be disappointed. The campaign schedules are extremely tight in the coming months, and Alaska isn't exactly a convenient stop on a national tour.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.
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