Year Of The Ground Game;
Kerry's troops take heart
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday October 6, 2004
MORRISVILLE, Pa.- As Democrats gathered Thursday for a debate-watching party in this "swing" Philadelphia suburb, the tension was as thick as the blue-cheese dip chased with local Yuengling beer.
This is a must-win state for John Kerry, which is why some of them came hundreds of miles to work for him - or, more accurately, against George W. Bush. And, in what unexpectedly has become a close war of attrition in a state Al Gore carried by five points, this army of volunteers gives the Democrats their biggest advantage.
Call it the year of the ground game. In a race where every vote really does count and few are unaccounted for, the winning campaign will be the one not just with the best message and messenger, but the most skilled at getting its sup-porters to the polls.
The Bush campaign has mounted its own prodigious get-out-the-vote campaign, already contacting five times as many voters as the GOP did four years ago. Democrats, who boast an even bigger machine due to groups allied with the Kerry campaign, can't afford any loss of focus or energy.
But at that party before the first presidential debate, these truest of the true believers didn't need the polls to tell them that here, as elsewhere around the country, their guy wasn't doing as well as expected. On the phone and at front stoops, they could hear the skepticism from too many of the moderate suburbanites needed to carry the 21 electoral votes. They could hear it, more alarmingly, from fellow activists anxious, as they should have been, about Kerry's stumbling prospects.
But as Kerry scored point after point on style and substance in the debate, and Bush seemed to be the one to "wilt and waver," the mood in the room shifted quickly and dramatically. Even before the end, after all the laughter over Bush's mistaking "vociferously" for "viciously" died down and there were no more catcalls over his insistence that the failings in Iraq were due to "such a rapid victory," the 35 activists were ready to roll.
Brent Welder, a suburban staffer for Kerry, had to stop one volunteer from picking up the phone to call voters right away: It was so late the call would probably cost them votes. Many set about writing "spin" letters to more than one newspaper praising Kerry's performance. And, mischievous tactics aside, it was clear they believed every word.
"I'd been disappointed in Kerry, that he hadn't responded clearly and strongly to Bush's attacks," said Tracy Mul-vaney, 38, of Yardley, a mediator at a conflict resolution center. "I have a lot of opportunity to preach to the non-choir. And now I can make a strong case for him with confidence."
This year Democrats registered nine times as many voters as Republicans in Philadelphia, thanks to America Com-ing Together and other groups. More remarkably, Democrats signed up 50 percent more new voters than Republicans did in this GOP-leaning Montgomery County. But many of them, especially minorities and the young, often don't turn out in large enough numbers to make a difference.
That's why Democrats clearly need the activists not just organized but excited to pull them to the polls. And, well before the debate, Kerry and his allies had the mechanism in place for them to reach potential supporters on Election Day - the computerized address and phone lists, the legions of canvassers and callers, the fleet of cars, cabs and buses. They even had a pretty solid series of messages with which to pursue "persuadables."
"Suburban Republican women should be ours for the taking," Susan Gobreski, head of the League of Conservation Voters effort here, said of a bloc that went for Gore. "If we can get the conversation back to domestic issues, we win."
What Democratic activists didn't have here and in other suburban-rich swing states, however, was a messenger who could get voters to listen to their pitch. Questions about Kerry's ability to lead in a time of war were converting soccer moms to security moms who were increasingly willing to support Bush despite their deep differences on social issues.
The debate changed that dynamic. Kerry may not have won many votes yet, but he certainly won some new ears to hear his choir.
And he "jazzed" them, as Peg Forster described herself. She was among dozens more people than usual to visit Kerry's Bucks County office after the debate to pick up lawn signs and campaign literature to give neighbors. And, if that is music to Kerry's ears, her husband's joining "Republicans for Kerry" is a symphony.
If Kerry continues to lead as he did on debate night, Forster and other new followers will make sure he can't lose.