First, a Hillary Clinton supporter asked Bill Cobb if she could put a campaign sign in front of his Boone, Iowa, home. Then a backer of Barack Obama showed up. A few days later, a canvasser for John Edwards came by.
Signs for all three candidates now adorn Cobb's lawn, making it ground zero in a battle among Democratic presidential candidates to woo voters in Iowa's first-in- the-nation contests next month. With just 1,240 people having taken part in the caucuses in Boone County four years ago, the campaigns are competing for the support of even individual voters such as Cobb.The relatively small numbers of voters involved in the caucus means the campaigns are putting a premium on on- the-ground organization because a close race will be decided by a candidate's ability to turn out the vote.
``Organization is key to winning the Iowa caucuses,'' said Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and an Obama supporter. ``Because it is a caucus, people have to come out, date and time certain, and publicly declare their support for a candidate. In order to get people to make that kind of commitment, you really need to have a great ground game.''
Caucuses make far greater demands of voters than primary elections, which usually only require the pull of a lever or push of a button to cast a ballot. On Jan. 3, Iowa caucus-goers will need to travel to their precincts, possibly through a snowstorm. Then, they will engage in a multiround process of public negotiation and cajoling with friends and neighbors --unlike the Republicans, who can keep their votes private -- that may last more than two hours.
How many people decide to make that commitment will depend on variables such as the weather and the participants' level of excitement about their choices.
The Democratic candidates are deploying unprecedented resources to ensure that Iowans turn out -- and champion their cause once the voting begins. The campaigns of Illinois Senator Obama, 46, and New York Senator Clinton, 60, have each fielded at least 300 paid staffers -- and many more volunteers -- to fan out across the state.
As in all Iowa's 99 counties, the votes in the Democratic stronghold of Boone remain up for grabs. To get an edge, the campaigns of the three leading Democrats have added their own arsenal of tactics to the standard campaign techniques of phone calls, mailings and door-to-door canvassing.
The Clinton camp is trying to capitalize on her support among women and emphasize her softer side. To do so, the campaign has relied on people like Georgina Cavendish, 21, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last year, then moved to Boone County this summer.
Cavendish has spent the time since forging deep connections with community leaders, organizing house parties and attending local Democratic committee meetings. She said she is now on first-name terms with many of the county's caucus-goers.
Clinton ``can't be in every community,'' said Cavendish. ``We're her ambassadors.''
On a recent Sunday afternoon Cavendish went door to door delivering copies of her candidate's endorsement by the Des Moines Register and leaving handwritten notes. She said that before canvassing, she tries to organize meet-ups at homes of older women who bake brownies for the campaign staffers and volunteers.
Obama's campaign, meanwhile, is focusing on younger voters. Matt Kireker, a 2007 Princeton University graduate, has organized a 30-member ``Barackstars'' group at Boone High School, where most of the 200-member senior class is eligible to caucus, since 17-year-olds can participate as long as they turn 18 by Nov. 4, 2008.
Kireker said he isn't deterred by the fact that efforts to recruit these voters in past elections haven't translated into big turnouts at the polls. ``The idea that you only focus on previous caucus-goers is baloney,'' Kireker said.
The Obama campaign is also deploying college students on their winter break. On a recent Sunday, two such volunteers dropped in on a family brunch in Boone. Fifteen minutes later, the dozen likely caucus goers said they were leaning toward Obama. Every one of them would receive a follow-up phone call, Kireker said.
Building on '04 Support
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, is focusing on the support he built among rural and union workers when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004 and split the county's vote with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
As a rural area, Boone is fertile ground for Edwards, 54, who has campaigned in the county more than any other candidate, said Cheri Johnsen, a campaign volunteer and precinct captain in Madrid.
She said she delivered policy books to people's doors, including homes in remote areas. The campaign is also distributing a DVD about the ``systematic neglect'' of rural America.
Cobb, a railroad engineer, said that while his union has endorsed Clinton, he likes Obama's oratorical skills. For now, though, he is leaning toward Edwards, whom he sees as the ``toughest'' candidate to take on a Republican in November.
``We're confused,'' said Cobb, 57.
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