A draft doesn't mean the military

Candidates can find grass-roots efforts useful when gauging support for a presidential run

January 14, 2007|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a cluttered room on the top floor of a Rockville townhouse, Ben Stanfield, a 26-year-old who spends his days running government computer servers, is staying up late to sow the seeds of a Barack Obama presidential campaign.

Obama, the charismatic Illinois senator who is flirting with a run for the Democratic nomination, has barely met this man. And Stanfield is no professional campaign strategist. All of which only fuels his drive to shape the still-amorphous 2008 contest.

Stanfield is the founder of DraftObama.org, one of a handful of Web-enabled efforts that have sprung up to promote the idea of an Obama candidacy. And it's Stanfield's rookie status, his professed lack of ambition to run a presidential campaign and his techno-savvy that appear to be powering his effort.

"The point is to let Senator Obama know that there are a multitude of Americans who will support him if he chooses to run," Stanfield said. "We're not seeing ourselves as a shadow campaign or anything like that. ... I see our job as finished and successful if he decides to run."

What Stanfield started as a primitive-looking one-page post in mid-October has morphed into a center for Obama hype that has attracted close to half a million unique users. He's raised enough cash to fund the production and cable-airing of a professional TV spot, sparked local draft-Obama efforts around the country - Maryland's was launched last Wednesday in Baltimore - and helped garner about 20,000 petition signatures urging the candidate of choice to go for it.

Draft efforts can be a useful tool for would-be candidates looking to gauge enthusiasm for a run. They assemble a ready-made network of supporters and donors, generate buzz and free publicity, and create an appealing story line for a presidential bid. It was a draft effort spearheaded by influential Republicans that goaded Dwight D. Eisenhower into declaring his candidacy in 1952.

More recently, Wesley K. Clark waited until late 2003 - after a draft movement had garnered $2 million in pledges and enlisted tens of thousands of supporters on his behalf - to jump into the presidential fray.

This year, similar groups have emerged to encourage Al Gore, who might be flirting with a presidential bid, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has expressly said she isn't, among others.

"It certainly doesn't hurt a candidate to have all the rest of us know that there are people out there really asking them to run," said Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager. "It's this sense of, `Geez, I was just sitting here minding my own business, and now they want me to run for president.'"

Stanfield's goal isn't to raise gobs of cash to seed an eventual Obama run - he and his helpers don't expect to raise even the $25,000 that would make it necessary to file with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt political organization - but to feed the enthusiasm that the senator has been stoking since he said two months ago that he would consider a run.

"We feel like he wants us to do this," said Andy Rosenberg, a lobbyist who is helping run the site and giving his friend Stanfield, who volunteered on Rosenberg's 2004 congressional campaign, free legal advice. Noting Obama's spoof of a presidential announcement that was aired on ESPN, Rosenberg said, "You don't do things like that unless you like the attention."

Even Stanfield concedes that his movement is likely superfluous; at this point, few think that Obama's arm needs twisting. "I think he's going to run," Stanfield says, but "there's always doubt."

Obama is carefully keeping the effort at arm's length.

He "feels it's enormously flattering to have this kind of activity going on around the country," said David Axelrod, a close adviser, who has been asked whether he produced the Draft Obama ad. (He didn't, and says neither he nor any of Obama's associates is in any way connected to the effort.)

These days Stanfield, a Pennsylvania-born college dropout who normally spends his free time running a computer news and discussion Web site, has been staying up until 2 and 3 a.m. responding to e-mails, blogging and improving DraftObama.org. A bespectacled, baby-faced and somewhat rotund figure with a goatee and ready giggle, Stanfield seems genuinely shocked by what he's created.

He has had some embarrassing moments, such as the time the name Barack showed up misspelled on the press release announcing his site's official Nov. 29 launch. He has also had a few thrilling ones, such as checking his voicemail and hearing NPR's Mara Liasson on the other end, requesting an interview.

Since Stanfield began the effort, he has attracted some seasoned campaign veterans. John Hlinko, who founded DraftWesleyClark.com in 2003 and helped steer the retired general's presidential bid, and Zephyr Teachout, an Internet organizing director for Howard Dean's 2004 run, have jumped on board as advisers.

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