Alaskans for Obama: A Rare Democratic Push in the Last Frontier

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

ANCHORAGE -- In what might be the fullest realization of Barack Obama's pledge to run hard in parts of the country largely untouched by presidential campaigning, the Democrat's Alaska operation is making plans for organizers to hopscotch the state's vast and sparsely populated interior by bush plane, knocking on doors in remote outposts for their candidate.

"Go around, put up signs, shake some hands, see some of the important people in the village," said state representative and professional pilot Woodie Salmon (D), describing his own campaign tactics in a legislative district that includes 94 villages, 70 of which can be reached only by air. "Get things stirred up and leave again."

Conservative and quirky, Alaska last went for a Democratic presidential candidate 44 years ago. No nominee from either party has even visited since Richard Nixon's journey to glad-hand in Anchorage on the last weekend of the 1960 campaign, a stop that some argue cost him the razor-thin election.

Obama, who often boasts of having visited the other 49 states, has yet to commit to a stop here. But his vibrant campaign operation here is stoking expectations and mounting the most prodigious presidential effort Alaska has seen.

While the John McCain campaign has yet to open an office anywhere in the state, Obama has dispatched dozens of paid staffers here over the past month; the latest batch arrived over the weekend. It is assigning field coordinators in each of the state's 40 legislative districts and has been buying television ad time since June.

"The campaign is treating Alaska as a key battleground state," said Jeff Giertz, the campaign's communications director in Alaska, who arrived in Anchorage from Iowa, the scene of Obama's first victory of the Democratic nominating contest.

With only three electoral votes, Alaska may seem a low-stakes prize. But by pouring time and money into traditionally Republican Western states such as Montana and Colorado, the Obama campaign is trying to make good on its vow to redraw the electoral map and force the McCain campaign to watch its flanks -- all the while reinforcing Obama's overarching claim of nurturing a politics of inclusion.

"It's a tough state to move, but we're making a play," Giertz said. "If there's any year where a Democrat can win Alaska, this is the year."

Public surveys consistently have McCain ahead, but by single-digit margins that reflect the Republican's tepid support here.

"Obama's really holding his own," said Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state lawmaker and independent gubernatorial candidate who termed the Obama effort "amazing."

"I think they could come pretty close," said David Dittman, the state's leading pollster, who works primarily with Republicans. He added: "I don't think Obama would win."

In a state where Ross Perot drew 28 percent in 1992 and Ralph Nader banked every tenth vote eight years later, an array of circumstances offers encouragement to the underdog Democrat, starting with McCain's last-place finish in the Republican caucus in February behind Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.

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