If John McCain is as serious as he says about running a "respectful" campaign against an opponent he considers "a decent person," word hasn't yet trickled down to his newly opened storefront field office in Gainesville, Virginia.
No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Virginia since 1964, and most election years both campaigns pretty much ignore the state. This time, however, McCain is running behind Barack Obama in statewide polls, thanks in large part to the head start he got on the ground there. "We haven't seen a race like this in Virginia ever," said state GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick. "The last time was 40 years ago, and they didn't run races like this."
Indeed, Frederick, a 33-year-old state legislator, hadn't even been born yet. But earlier this year Frederick unseated a moderate 71-year-old former lieutenant governor (who also happens to be Jenna Bush's father-in-law) to become head of the Virginia GOP, promising "bold new leadership" for a state party recently on the decline.
The McCain campaign invited me to visit Frederick and the Gainesville operation on Saturday morning, to get a first-hand glimpse of its ground game in Prince William County, Virginia, a fast-growing area about 30 miles from Washington, D.C.
With so much at stake, and time running short, Frederick did not feel he had the luxury of subtlety. He climbed atop a folding chair to give 30 campaign volunteers who were about to go canvassing door to door their talking points for instance, the connection between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden: "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon," he said. "That is scary." It is also not exactly true though that distorted reference to Obama's controversial association with William Ayers, a former 60s radical, was enough to get the volunteers stoked. "And he won't salute the flag," one woman added, repeating another myth about Obama. She was quickly topped by a man who called out, "We don't even know where Senator Obama was really born." Actually, we do; it's Hawaii.
Ground operations the doughnut-fueled armies of volunteers who knock on doors and man the phone banks are the trench warfare of political campaigns. These are the people charged with finding and persuading voters who might support their candidate, and then making sure they actually show up at the polls. A good ground operation might mean just an additional percentage point or two on Election Day, but in a close race, that margin could easily be the difference between winning and losing. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe calls his ground operation the "field goal unit," and it was one of the big reasons the Illinois Senator bested Hillary Clinton in the primaries. But Obama's team has yet to be tested against a Republican operation that was built and perfected over decades, culminating in the astonishing ground game that put George W. Bush over the top in 2004.
The Republicans wouldn't allow me to tag along with their volunteers, so I drove 30 minutes across the county to the Obama field office. Where the Gainesville GOP office that opened last week was still furnished only with a few folding tables and chairs (workers were hanging the McCain/Palin sign out front as I drove away), Obama's in Woodbridge has been up and running since July, and has the dingy, cluttered, lived-in feel that every campaign office eventually acquires. The campaign's "Votebuilder" software with house-by-house data on every registered voter in the area dominated a bank of computer screens, and the walls were covered with cartoons, volunteer signatures and lists of "star phonebankers." Young volunteers bustled in and out with stacks of clipboards and canvassing materials to hand to the volunteers who were showing up by the carful in the parking lot. Word had gotten out that a new load of yard signs had arrived, so they were handing those out to Obama supporters who had shown up asking for them.
The campaign handed me a packet of addresses and sent me out to meet Brian Varrieur. He's a 34-year-old lawyer who lives in Washington, D.C. and looks barely old enough to vote himself. This was the fifth weekend he returned to his parents' home in the neighborhood where he grew up to knock on doors for Obama. Brian is soft-spoken not exactly a natural personality for this kind of work; back when his elementary school would hold candy-sale drives, "I was one of those kids who would get their next-door neighbor and their mom to buy some, and that was it," he told me. "But this [presidential election] really matters to me."
It must. Saturdays in the suburbs aren't the ideal time to find people at home. I followed Brian to 13 houses on his list, and no one answered at 10 of them. (He left an Obama brochure in the door of each.) At one, the woman at the door told him she was "leaning" toward McCain, though I thought she seemed more settled in her decision than that. At another, a teen-aged girl told him: "My dad is a super-strong Republican. You're probably at the wrong house." (He duly marked that down, to save future canvassers the trouble.) Still, the yard signs we saw suggested that this was in fact a neighborhood divided. We discovered that was true when we approached another house on the list and found a father and son raking the front yard. "I'm voting for McCain," the father told us. But his 19-year-old son, a college student home for the weekend, told us he plans to send in his absentee ballot for Obama. His reason? "Palin's a retard," he said. As for the lady of the house? McCain, the man said. "She has to live here. The kids I can kick out."