Canvassers Make a Final Frantic Push in Iowa

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

CARROLL, Iowa, Jan. 2 -- Jean Guy discovered Wednesday morning that a secretary at Kuemper Catholic High remained undecided. With barely a day before the Iowa presidential caucuses, Guy went to work and persuaded her to support Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Guy, an English-literature teacher and Clinton precinct captain, spent three hours on the telephone on New Year's Day, and she expects to work her lists right up to the minute the Precinct 1 doors close, dialing anyone who could potentially tip a delegate to the New York senator.

"I'll have to get a new battery for my cellphone tonight. I don't think my battery is strong enough for all the things I'll need to do," Guy said. "I think we have some real good supporters. I just don't know what the others have."

On the eve of one of the more closely watched Iowa caucuses in history, ground warriors for the three leading Democratic candidates set out to eliminate chance. Thousands of volunteers joined hundreds of paid staffers to convince, cajole and all but carry prospective supporters over the threshold.

As the candidates rocketed around the state trailed by media throngs, the nitty-gritty of caucus mobilization was underway more anonymously in 1,781 precincts that will provide the jigsaw pieces for Thursday night's portrait of winners and losers.

In downtown Carroll, 100 miles northwest of Des Moines, teams of canvassers spread out in freezing temperatures to knock on doors and pass out literature. Storefronts that were opened months ago by lone newcomers buzzed with believers making final-hour calls to the committed and the still unsure.

Friends delivered casseroles and back pats and polished plans to make their corner of the caucus sites lively and appealing -- where the cool people gather. Megan Arellano prepared to bake frosted sugar cookies for supporters of Sen. Barack Obama and perhaps attract lonesome and hungry backers of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The Clinton campaign planned to counter with sandwiches, chips and sweets.

It is the Clinton and Obama campaigns that are most dependent on luring newcomers, whose commitment to the candidates and the caucus process remains unproven. That made for a frenetic last dash as the campaigns stretched to make good on their extraordinary investments in the ground game.

A hand-drawn sign on the wall at Obama headquarters in Carroll made the situation plain. It referred to a recent opinion poll:

Obama 29

Edwards 29

Clinton 28

Every call counts

Every knock counts

The sign on the bank said 2 degrees as Shaun Loneman, Jessica Johnson and Ian Erickson made their afternoon rounds for Obama in Carroll. As Johnson idled the car, the 21-year-old Loneman rang doorbells, holding a clipboard in his gloved left hand. His right hand was bare.

"It's easier to turn the pages and hold the pen," he said.

Stacy Rummerfield answered the door at a wood-frame house on North West Street, where Christmas lights framed the carport and snow covered the front lawn. Yes, she said, she and her husband intend to caucus, but they are still deciding between Clinton and Obama.

Remarkably, in a campaign where canvassers are as omnipresent as bill collectors, this was her first political contact. She had received no mail, no visitors, no telephone calls -- perhaps because she and her husband have only cellphones.

"Can I ask who it's between?" ventured Loneman, a University of Northern Iowa junior.

"It's Hillary and Obama," said Rummerfield, 23. "We're debating over the war and health care."

Loneman reminded her that Obama opposed the war before it began and described a few key differences between their health-care plans. He gave her a number to call for more information and said someone from the campaign would follow up. He urged her to go the courthouse where Precinct 3 residents caucus.

"If you're undecided, you can go there and be undecided," Loneman said. "You can go there and hear the explanations from people about why they're going to do what they're going to do."

Up the street, at another door, Loneman was disappointed when no one answered because he had been tracking the decision making of a high school senior who lived there. The Obama campaign has mounted a large operation to attract teenagers who will turn 18 by November and can caucus now.

On New Year's Eve, the campaign sponsored a concert and free bowling at Carroll Bowl. About 100 young people, mostly college and high school students, showed up to see actor Kal Penn and musician Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes.

Twenty-five people signed Obama supporter cards.

At Clinton headquarters, David Mercer was focused on details. A Democratic strategist who arrived from Washington to help the campaign, he described the task of matching drivers with people who need rides, a group that make up about 20 percent of Clinton's supporters.

"The best driver is the person down the street who is picking up her aunt or the neighbor and knows the way," Mercer said. "The operative terms are anticipation and leaving nothing to chance."

Guy, the Precinct 1 captain for Clinton, dialed supporters on newly updated lists.

"If they were leaning towards Edwards or something, I tried to convince them," she said. "I told people to come early because parking might be a problem. And I said to bring a friend."

Guy is a caucus lifer who has supported Republican Pat Buchanan and Democrats Jimmy Carter and John F. Kerry. She fits a profile of experience more often attributed to activists working for former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Specialists think veterans offer an advantage during the fluid cacophony of caucus night.

Some things, Guy has learned, she cannot control. One supporter will miss the caucus for a funeral. Several others have health complaints that will keep them away. But she will keep plugging.

So will Loneman, who persuaded a friend to drive home from Nebraska to caucus. He also worked on his mother, whom he described as a "die-hard conservative" who voted twice for George W. Bush. She finally promised to caucus for Obama if Loneman would accompany her to the Disney movie "Enchanted."

He saw the movie and survived it, mindful of the payoff when the caucus doors close.

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