An army has a mission: re-elect the president

Campaign: The Bush team is mustering an unprecedented legion of supporters to spread the word in key battleground states like West Virginia.

April 03, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BECKLEY, W.Va. - They drove into the parking lot, past signs reading, "More than Just Pancakes!" and "Try our Lenten Specials Now." They walked into the dining room, filled with the smell of syrup, and into a banquet room at the back of the restaurant along Interstate 77.

Forty West Virginians, a new regiment in George W. Bush's campaign army, found seats and began a political education. And when the new volunteer foot soldiers left the Beckley Pancake House, they had armed themselves with talking points to spread to neighbors. ("America is safer today - and will be tomorrow - because of the decisive action and leadership of President Bush.")

Their mission: to win this swing state for Bush and help return him to the White House in November.

Brian Donahue, the campaign's exuberant 28-year-old state executive director, explained to his trainees:

"Somebody might ask you, `The war in Iraq is so important to me, but I've heard different things on TV - what's the truth?' And you say, `We've had success in Iraq and the war on terrorism. We're bringing Saddam Hussein to justice. And we're working hard in Afghanistan.'"

Bush campaign officials, flush with more than $170 million raised for the president's re-election, have vowed to wage the most intense grass-roots war ever known to American politics, to help their candidate defeat John Kerry. They appear to be substantially outpacing Kerry's staff in setting up state headquarters across the country, hiring employees and launching voter registration drives.

A Kerry campaign spokeswoman, Laura Capps, acknowledged that her camp is just in the process of opening an office in West Virginia and has no full-time staff there yet. But she said that Kerry has received endorsements from top West Virginia politicians and that the state Democratic Party has been tirelessly organizing volunteers. Capps also pointed out that Bush knew well before Kerry did that he would be his party's nominee.

"We're operating on a different time schedule," Capps said, "but a very optimistic one."

Setting up a broad grass-roots organization by no means ensures victory in a presidential election. A candidate with only limited money, for example, might best spend it developing a unifying message that can be delivered, via TV advertising, to millions of voters across the country.

But in a tight campaign, as the 2000 presidential election was, efforts to mobilize volunteers - who knock on doors and visit church dinners and Little League games, gushing about their candidate and urging the unregistered or undecided to back their cause - can tip the balance. Especially in swing states such as West Virginia, which Bush captured over Al Gore in 2000 by fewer than 39,000 votes out of 636,617 cast.

In a sign of the importance of the state, all but ignored in previous presidential elections, Bush made his seventh trip as president here yesterday, visiting Huntington to speak about job training and crow about the strongest job growth in four years.

"Today the statistics show that we added 308,000 jobs for the month of March," he said at Marshall University.

Bush edged Gore in West Virginia, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1. An aggressive push by Republican volunteers to target fellow party members and swing voters in the final hours helped give Bush the boost he needed. As it turned out, it was local issues - fears that Gore would abolish gun rights if elected or that his environmental policies would harm the coal industry - that persuaded many swing voters.

The lesson learned is that hot-button state and local issues can turn a national election. Had the Democrats been able to effectively defend their candidate against the Republican attacks, Gore might have picked up the state's 5 electoral votes - and would now be occupying the White House.

"The ground game is what wins it in a close election," said Kevin Madden, a Bush campaign spokesman. Madden said that the Bush team in West Virginia is preparing to pepper Kerry with charges that his votes have hurt coal miners and that the senator has received failing grades from the National Rifle Association.

Donahue and his staff had already trained volunteers in 32 counties - more than 1,000 volunteers all together. On this night at the pancake house, he had 40 new recruits. On some were bestowed titles like "precinct chair" and "coalition coordinator."

Sounding as though the election were being held the next day, Donahue implored his troops: "Go to VFW meetings or church meetings, and make sure we have a Bush presence. Talk about our message at these events. Have a registration table."

Each volunteer received specific instructions. Precinct chairs were given goals for the number of Bush volunteers to recruit by June 1 and the number of new Republicans to register by Aug. 1. By Oct. 15, they must have arranged for a volunteer to call, e-mail or knock on the door - twice - of each swing voter on a list provided by the campaign.

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