WASHINGTON - Eager to amass a voter army for the fall, Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign will embark this week on an ambitious plan to mobilize voters through a series of national house parties similar to those popularized by former rival Howard Dean.
The first wave of house parties is scheduled to take place next Saturday, with Kerry addressing the gatherings in a 6 p.m. conference call, according to the candidate's Web site.
"We want to take advantage of the energy out there and get people invested," said Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor of New Hampshire and Kerry's national chairwoman.
Kerry officials are emulating Dean's approach to organizing voters with parties in homes where people offer personal testimonials about why they are supporting the likely Democratic nominee. The campaign hired Karen Hicks, former director of Dean's campaign in New Hampshire, to help coordinate the effort, which merges the Internet's power with traditional grass-roots organizing, Shaheen said.
The idea is to bring voters into the campaign network, organize them for the fall and spur them to contribute money as well as persuade their neighbors to vote for Kerry in November.
But some operatives in the campaign have questioned whether the approach works and is worth the time and effort involved. Although campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill promoted the operation in a brief conversation, spokesman Bill Burton refused to comment on the project or make campaign officials available to discuss it further.
Despite his vaunted grass-roots organization, Dean still lost the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, ultimately leading the former Vermont governor to drop out of the Democratic primary race in February.
"I'm not sure it was half as good as they thought it was," said William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University. "I'm struck by how often what we think we know about a candidate's field organization after the fact turns out to be wrong."
But Kerry has spoken admiringly of Dean's prowess at organizing, raising money and using the Internet. On the campaign trail, he regularly implores voters to get involved and asks them to contribute to his campaign Web site, even if only $10 or $20.
"He has looked at what Howard Dean did well and said, `Let's adopt that,'" Shaheen said on Kerry's campaign plane en route from Kentucky to Florida last week.
While house parties have been a staple of New Hampshire primary campaigns for years, the Dean effort took it to a national level not seen before. Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University sociologist who once worked with the United Farm Workers, drafted the Dean campaign's plan of action, based on methods used to organize farmworkers in California 25 years ago.
In one evening, the campaign logged 3,300 house parties meeting simultaneously.
With traditional house parties, a candidate visits someone's home, meets the attendees and answers their questions about his campaign. Under the Dean model, people gathered their friends and neighbors without the candidate's being present.
Joe Trippi, who was Dean's campaign manager, still believes it is a worthwhile strategy.
"Anything that helps get grass roots involved in politics and engaged in the election is a lot better than the usual TV stuff we've done for 40 years," he said.
In fact, Trippi and other Democrats say the Kerry campaign is far behind in setting up state-by-state grass-roots organizations.
"I think they all could have been doing this a lot earlier," Trippi said. "I think we woke a lot of people up. I think we woke the Bush campaign up. It's a great thing that they're doing it."
The Bush campaign held 5,300 neighborhood parties in April for people to get together, organize and listen to a national campaign official talk about the campaign's message and the contribution of local organizers.
"It was a kind of spring activity to keep our troops engaged and gather more support and workers in preparation for the fall campaign," said Bush spokesman Terry Holt. "We'll be doing this thing up until Election Day."
With the November election expected to be extremely close, strategists in both political parties say grass-roots organizing could make the difference between winning and losing.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.