'This Is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Thing,' GW Student Says

Tobin Van Ostern, a George Washington sophomore, on the stump for Obama.
Tobin Van Ostern, a George Washington sophomore, on the stump for Obama. (By Jose Antonio Vargas -- The Washington Post)
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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

LONDONDERRY, N.H., Jan. 8 -- Three weeks. Washington, D.C., then Des Moines, then Londonderry. All for Sen. Barack Obama.

Tobin Van Ostern, a 19-year-old sophomore at George Washington University, began Tuesday morning the way he started last Thursday: sending Facebook messages, hitting the ground, making one last pitch for Obama (D-Ill.).

"The good news is -- and this is kind of surprising -- New Hampshire isn't as cold as Iowa," said Van Ostern, smiling as he stood on Wilshire Drive on a sunny, almost springlike day.

For more than a year, Van Ostern has been one of Obama's critical weapons in this primary race: a young voter who is steeped in networking both online and off. He is deputy director of Students for Barack Obama, which started as a Facebook group in July 2006. Founded by Meredith Segal, a 22-year-old senior at Bowdoin College in Maine, the group soon became an official part of the campaign, with more than 700 chapters in high schools and colleges across the country. It was on Facebook, Van Ostern said, that he learned more about Obama. He read Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope," then contacted Segal on Facebook and "got deeply involved" with the Facebook group, he said.

Van Ostern's Facebook profile is a shrine to Obama. The main photo in a profile normally features the user's face. Van Ostern's profile features Obama's face.

Last February, before the Illinois senator formally announced his candidacy, Van Ostern stood alongside Obama at a student rally at George Mason University. Throughout the summer, Van Ostern served as a link between the campaign and Facebook, helping make sure that Facebook users who supported Obama online also did something offline: make a few calls, knock on doors, attend a rally.

In the fall, Van Ostern decided to volunteer for Obama's Iowa operation during winter break. Using his savings -- he works part time as a computer lab technician on campus -- he flew to Des Moines, where he spent the holidays and slept on a sofa bed in a house full of Obama staffers and volunteers. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he told his parents.

Then three days after the caucuses, he flew to Boston, near where his girlfriend, Emily Ziobrowski, lives. At 6:30 this morning, with Ziobrowski driving her mom's 1996 red Ford Taurus, the two made the nearly hour-long drive to Londonderry, a small, quaint, picturesque New England town of about 26,000 residents.

"I know it might seem a little weird for some people, spending all this time, even my whole winter break, working for a candidate," Van Ostern said. "But this is a movement, and it feels incredible."

He laughed, shook his head, then continued: "It's like watching history happen before your eyes."

Obama's volunteer headquarters here was at Mack's Apples, inside a barn, in front of an apple orchard that dates back 200 years. "Farming In Londonderry Since 1732," a sign outside read. Inside, nearly two dozen supporters -- young and old -- organized packets that canvassers carried as they hit the ground. Obama sticker? Check. A walk list and a map? Check. A canvas script? Check.

Starting at 9 a.m., Van Ostern and Ziobrowski drove more than 50 miles, heading from one driveway to the next, making sure that Obama supporters -- and voters who said they might be leaning toward Obama -- know where and what time to go vote. "It's at Londonderry High School, off Mammoth Road," he told the woman on 13 Bunker Hill Road, "and you should show up way before 8 p.m."

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