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Candidate Obama struggles to match intensity of Obama campaign

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The Closer had a pack of Pall Mall Reds. A stash of Cherry Cokes. Eleven volunteers. And 1,008 phone numbers.

Connie Lynd had spent three years helping President Obama. In two hours, she would know whether he had done what he needed to help her — re-energizing the Democrats on her list with his performance in Tuesday’s presidential debate.

Around her, the calls were starting.

“I’m a volunteer with President Obama’s grass-roots reelection campaign . . . ” one of Lynd’s people started — then stopped. Paused. “Okay.” Paused. Hung up.

“Take me off your list,” she said, relaying the other side of the conversation.

On Wednesday night, this simple two-hour phone bank captured a fraught, upside-down moment for the president. Less than three weeks from Election Day, Obama the candidate is still struggling to match the polished intensity of Obama the campaign.

Lynd is that intensity personified: a 73-year-old who has overseen 100,000 phone calls, and takes the phone herself to close the deal with wavering voters.

Does the public see that same fire in Obama himself? The answer, Lynd hoped, would be on the other side of the phone.

“I’ll know who got excited” by the debate, Lynd said before the calls began. “Everybody wants to be on a winning team.”

On Wednesday, the game was ramping up. There were 21 Obama campaign activities officially scheduled within five miles of this town outside Fort Lauderdale.

One of them was Lynd’s phone bank, inside the deserted offices of a personal-injury lawyer on Hollywood’s main drag.

“Say it in your own words. But don’t let this sentence go by” unread, Lynd was saying, explaining how to read the official script all her volunteers were given. “This is the sentence: ‘The election here will be extremely close, and you can make the crucial difference.’ ”

Master of the phone bank

The phone bank might be the dullest of all the election-year arts, but few people have done more to master it than Lynd — a retiree with spiked hair and a cigarette-blasted growl for a voice. Lynd grew up in Hartford, Conn., and her accent still resides somewhere north of New York City.

Lynd started volunteering in 2008 after she read Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope.” “All of a sudden, I hear the words spoken that I’d been thinking for years,” she said.

Because of pain from an old broken leg, she couldn’t go door to door. So she applied the skills of her old job — managing group homes for the mentally ill and disabled — to the phone bank. Encourage your people, don’t scold. Keep tight schedules and good records. Respond to anger with calm (even when one angry voter she had called then called her back, claiming to be raising money for the Muslim Brotherhood). And be available to talk personal problems.

Lynd relies on endless follow-up calls and subtle guilt trips to turn passive supporters into Obama volunteers. You can’t canvass? You can phone-bank. You can’t get to the phone bank? You can call from home.

About 35 people come to her phone banks, making at least 2,000 calls in five nights a week. Lynd teaches them her secrets: Don’t just recite the script. Memorize it, and tell it your way. Use your personal story — Lynd talks about her children with health issues and her fears that they wouldn’t get insurance without Obama.

Also, try to guess the other person’s story.

All in that tiny window of time that politeness requires before one stranger hangs up on another.

“I always look at the age. Per Connie, you know, you look at the age,” said Sandra Wisotsky, 70, a retired U.S. Customs inspector from Hallandale Beach, Fla. “You have a woman, 75 years old, [who] says, ‘No, I don’t know [whom I’m voting for].’ ” 

Well, Wisotsky said, “do you know about the doughnut hole?” That was a gap in Medicare’s prescription drug coverage, which disappeared with Obama’s controversial health-care law.

“Your volunteers, the first time, come for Obama,” Lynd said. “The second time, they come for you.”

The debates

This month, Lynd’s crew watched as Obama gave a pretty poor version of the story they’d practiced telling about him.

In the second debate, Lynd thought he’d done much better. But on Wednesday, the phones would say for sure. Her crew had a list mainly composed of voters who were “super-volunteers” for Obama in 2008 but had been less active this year.

As the calls began, happy news began to filter out of some office doors.

“What a hero! Oh, wow. You’ve just become my new BFF,” said Gloria Young, 65, who sells building supplies. She meant “Best Friend Forever” and found that people really responded to those words. This person said he’d vote for Obama, so she pushed on, offering a chance to volunteer: “We’re going to have, Saturday, a national Day of Action.”

Elsewhere, however, there was the unmistakable sound of people listening to half-baked excuses.

“Just two hours! To make sure that everybody knows all the things that you know,” said Oda Sereix, 36. She was pushing an Obama voter to become an Obama volunteer and join the phone bank. It wasn’t working.

“Next thing, go into begging stage!” Lynd stage-whispered to her, coaching.

“You think that you can be there at 1 o’clock on Saturday? Yeah. . . . You’re sleeping,” Sereix said. “Well. Four o’clock? . . . You’re still sleeping at 4 o’clock.”

“You’re beating a dead horse!” Lynd said, whispering louder now. Sereix let the person go but put the person down as a “maybe” anyway. Lynd said she would call the maybes back later, “and close ’em.”

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