By CARL HULSE
© 2008 New York Times News Service
JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. – Leila Eckert works the telephone like a seasoned professional.
She quickly seals the deal with a voter on behalf of Rep. Baron Hill, a Democrat being promoted by Eckert via a phone bank set up in a vacant Masonic building in this working-class community snug against the Ohio River. Sen. Barack Obama proves a tougher sell, with the woman on the other end of the line saying she hears that he might be a bit too sure of himself.
“There are a lot of nasty rumors and smears about him going around,” says Eckert, a retiree who soothingly promises to dispatch some literature to reassure the woman and perhaps secure a vote for Obama to go along with the one for Hill.
It is all part of the building ground game in this crucial congressional district and many others around the nation. Trying to put their steep financial advantage over House Republicans to good use, House Democrats have initiated extensive voter contact programs to fortify their own candidates and simultaneously bolster Obama in areas where he might struggle with blue-collar voters.
While Obama could prove beneficial to House candidates by increasing turnout in urban communities and raising enthusiasm among young voters in college towns, party officials believe an association with known Democratic candidates down the ticket could pay off for Obama among people who frequent Wal-Mart and passed up college to work.
“It is a two-way street,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There are going to be many districts where the Obama campaign helps our candidates, but our candidates are going to bring out people and we want to be sure they vote for Obama as well.”
After success with the program in special congressional elections this year, the party is putting more money into what strategists call early voter persuasion, getting a jump on previous years in their push to identify Democratic voters and nail down their allegiance by providing background information and other material. It is distinct from voter turnout drives that will begin closer to the election.
Planning began last November, and the committee has already spent $9 million, as much as was invested in the entire previous campaign season. Seven staff members oversee the national operation, compared with one in the 2006 cycle. The Democrats hope to record at least 13 million personal contacts with voters in 50 House districts before they are through.
The Internet may be the rage, but strategists on the ground say land lines, shoe leather and postage stamps remain the best ways to reach specific voters like the Indiana residents in the sights of the Hill campaign.
“We hope to call them three times and knock on their door at least two times between now and Election Day,” said Jonathan Hall, who is coordinating field operations in Hill’s district for the Indiana Democratic Party.
Party operatives say the work here in conservative southeastern Indiana and in select House districts in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin could help Obama make inroads with voters who favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries. Clinton swamped Obama in this sprawling 20-county district, carrying nearly all of the counties even though Hill endorsed Obama. At the least, Democrats hope to limit any damage to their candidates from voters still skeptical of Obama.
And there is some skepticism. Kallie Crume, a paid canvasser for the Hill campaign, said she frequently encountered resistance to Obama. “A lot of people tell me they are going to vote a straight Democratic ticket except for president,” Crume said.
But there are backers as well. “I’m an Obama fan,” one woman said on a recent day as Crume worked East Court Avenue in Jeffersonville, taking the pulse of those who answer the door and dropping off campaign literature that also makes the case for Jill Long Thompson, the Democratic candidate for governor. She records her findings and contacts on a Palm Pilot for future reference.
Crume receives $60 a shift for her efforts, attractive part-time pay for the eight canvassers hired to work in the district, and a way for the party to be sure it has reliable workers for what is often a volunteer effort.
The persuasion campaign is not an attempt to convert Republicans; it is intended to reach out to potential and proven Democratic voters to make sure they are engaged in the campaign and to sell them on the full slate of Democrats.
The program’s first objective, however, is to support Hill, a centrist Democrat in his fourth consecutive election against Mike Sodrel, a Republican who has also held the seat. Analysts give Hill the edge, but also rate the race as the best opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat in the state, particularly if Sodrel gets a boost from Sen. John McCain.
By appealing to voters at this stage of the race, party strategists hope to minimize defections by arguing that Hill and fellow Democrats will be better positioned if the party controls both Congress and the White House. At the same time, Hill campaign aides say Obama’s candidacy is helping them in the university community of Bloomington, where the presidential contender could funnel new younger voters to Hill. Homemade Obama-Hill signs have been spotted, they said.
Obama’s campaign has plans to open its own field office in Jeffersonville and promises a major presence in the state, a presence that could grow if Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana is selected as Obama’s running mate.
With its own financial edge over Republicans, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also investing more than Republicans in field operations at this stage, distributing $5 million to states for similar activities.
In some respects, Democrats are trying to mimic the Republicans’ success in 2004 in identifying and motivating voters. Some Republicans acknowledge ruefully that Democrats have closed if not erased the gap. The National Republican Congressional Committee has no similar operation at the moment, relying on the national party to head up much of the Republican get-out-the-vote effort.
Republicans say the Democratic drive exposes the underlying weakness of the party: that it could have difficulty attracting working-class voters.
“Democrats are prospecting for votes in places where they know their liberal party message of higher taxes and opposition to drilling could have a detrimental effect on their down-ballot chances,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the House Republican campaign organization. “It’s no coincidence that they are doing so in blue-collar districts where Republicanccandidates are already running strong.”
Democrats say their wins in special elections this year convinced them that field operations are essential. But they are not counting solely on that approach; the group has reserved $53 million in television time around the nation for later this fall and intends to put mass media punch behind its person-to-person campaign.
“We are in a position where we are able to do both,” Van Hollen said.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.