Conventioneers return home to the ground game

August 30, 2012

For a week they were as one, sharing grand political plans and kitschy elephant wear, applauding the same speeches, sitting captive in the same stalled shuttle buses. More than a mere convention, it was bonding.

But now that it’s over, battleground-state Republicans will go home and act as if they have practically nothing in common.

Yes, they’ll all keep pushing the Romney-Ryan ticket and keep sharing the same mix of excitement and swing-state trepidation. But with distinct economic, political and social issues on the ground back home, they will pursue their common cause in very different ways.

Campaign volunteers going door-to-door in conservative Sanilac County, Mich., where unemployment tops 10 percent, have a different playbook than those making the rounds in thriving, largely liberal Northern Virginia.

In Sanilac, the game plan is to play up severe unemployment but avoid the word “outsourcing.” In Virginia: Look past low unemployment to the threat of looming defense cuts and recast the ­alleged “war on women” into a pocketbook issue.

Grassroots activists in retiree-rich Florida will try to win over those wary of remaking Medicare. But in Ohio, where a recent battle over public employee pensions has both sides dug in on entitlement reform, activists say they’re done trying to change minds. It’s on to the ground game.

Kathleen and Dean Berden leave the Republican National Convention in Tampa ready to make the case for Mitt Romney in Sanilac. An economically depressed area in Michigan’s thumb, it’s seemingly slam-dunk territory for a campaign largely premised on the idea that President Obama has failed to fix the economy.

But it’s not quite that simple. The county used to be home to nine factories that made small parts for General Motors. But with the advent of free-trade agreements, nearly all the plants moved overseas in the past 10 years, said Dean Berden, a retired teacher and farmer.

“They’ve been outsourced,” he said.

His wife chides him for using the O-word, which plays into one of the president’s chief lines of attack: that Romney shipped American jobs overseas during his career at the private equity firm Bain Capital. It’s a claim that independent fact checkers have largely debunked, although Bain did help lay the groundwork for businesses to expand overseas.

The Berdens are concerned that Obama could peel off some outsourced workers.

Democrats are “very good at turning things to their advantage,” she said.

It’s a very different story in Northern Virginia, where Marta Saltus has a seemingly can’t-quit economy on her hands.

The defense-heavy state chugged along throughout the recession. Unemployment stands at 5.9 percent, well below the national average of 8.3 percent. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) contends that the state’s good fortune is the result of Republican stewardship, not anything Obama has done. But regardless of who gets credit for it, the commonwealth’s humming economy could make Romney’s “We can do better” message sound a bit flat.

So Saltus, 46, a Defense Department employee who sported an elephant necklace in Tampa, has been urging voters to look ahead. Virginia will take a huge hit if across-the-board defense and domestic cuts known as sequestration take effect.

“We have sequestration coming up,” Saltus said. “I’m laying off people right now.”

Virginia Republicans also have to pave their own way as they combat claims that the GOP has waged a “war on women.”

Democrats nationally have pushed the idea that Republicans are attacking women, in part by seeking to restrict access to abortion and insurance coverage for contraception.

The argument could have special resonance in the commonwealth, where the General Assembly took up a series of anti-abortion measures this year. It drew national attention with a bill that, before it was amended, would have required women to get a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion.

As they knock on doors and work phone banks in the socially liberal Washington suburbs, Romney volunteers will counter the “war” claims with what they contend are the real women’s issues: the economy and jobs.

“Forget all these other distractions,” said Geraldine Davie, 71, a retired teacher from Springfield. “Talk to a woman whose husband lost his job or who has lost her job. She’s concerned about food on the table, clothes for her children and paying her mortgage.”

In Florida, Republican activists expect to spend much of their time fighting off charges that Romney would kill Medicare, the popular government health insurance for seniors. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has proposed providing seniors with vouchers toward the purchase of private insurance.

Cherie Billings, 63, a retired accountant from Amelia Island, thinks she can sell that plan with enough voter education. She and other GOP activists will try to assure older voters that the overhaul, which would apply to those enrolled after 2022, wouldn’t affect them. And they’ll try to convince younger voters that no matter what, traditional Medicare won’t be around by the time they retire because the government can’t afford it.

It’s too late for that sort of hearts-and-minds strategy in Ohio, according Paul Hoag, the elected financial officer for Springfield Township in Lucas County.

Government spending has been a red-hot topic in his state, as Gov. John Kasich (R) has pushed for the reform of public pensions.

“Ohio’s polarized,” said Hoag, 57. “Half the people are the payers and half the people are the takers.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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