Can Obama's Grass-Roots Army Win Missouri?

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Kansas City Star / MCT / Landov

Senator Barack Obama in Kansas City, Mo.

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In Nixa and elsewhere, staffers are paid to build a web of "neighborhood organizing teams." Each team begins with a volunteer who vows to work 15 to 20 hours per week leading an additional five volunteers, who each promise to manage 8 to 10 precincts. The campaign claims to have some 2,000 "team leaders" covering every neighborhood of the state. They have been busy for weeks already, knocking on doors and dialing phones in search of those 15 additional voters. On the first weekend of September, according to the Obama campaign, this network visited 30,000 Missouri homes. They finished the month with an even more massive effort, pulling in volunteers from a six-state region with a goal of knocking on 100,000 doors in a single weekend.

Managing such a far-flung operation can be messy. On a recent morning in midtown Kansas City, Obama's local headquarters was bustling. A team of about 15 staffers, paid and volunteer, hunched over laptops and cradled cell phones in a bare space provisioned with bags of Lays potato chips and Dum Dums. A pair of disposable chopsticks and a Chinese takeout container peeked from a trashcan, testament to someone's late night. A steady stream of supporters trooped through the door, eager for yard signs.

Most campaigns give such free advertising away for, well, free, but they cost $8 apiece here. Having folks pay for signs gives them a real stake in the campaign, Obama believes. And it is one way to help pay for all those workers, though salaries are hardly lavish. College-age workers can get around $2,000 a month — they typically camp out with relatives or on the hide-a-beds of campaign donors — while even top field directors with years of experience have been offered salaries of less than six figures, according to one Washington insider.

Still, it adds up. Paying $2,000 each month to 150 staffers is a significant investment, even for a campaign that raises money as prodigiously as Obama's. Some Democrats worry about the huge overhead — Obama is reported to have 350 paid field workers in Florida — in light of the Republican Party's fund-raising prowess and sharper focus. Nationwide, Obama is massively outspending McCain on payroll: $2.7 million for salaries in August alone, compared with $1.1 million for McCain, according to federal election reports.

One person who believes the investment can pay off is Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who co-chairs Obama's national campaign. She used a similar strategy in 2006 to unseat Republican Jim Talent. McCaskill stumped hard and spent money across southern Missouri, traditionally Republican turf, narrowing her losses there and leaving Talent unable to overcome her huge advantages in the traditional Democratic strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis.

(View a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)
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