By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008
OMAHA, Oct. 5 -- With a month to go before Election Day, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, touched down here Sunday for an unexpected rally in a state that President Bush won by 22 percentage points in 2004.
In early September, even as it was shifting resources out of other traditionally Republican states to key electoral battlegrounds, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign sent 15 paid staffers to Nebraska, a state that has backed a Democrat for president just once since 1936.
Despite Nebraska's consistent preference for a Republican in the Oval Office, Obama and the national mood are forcing Sen. John McCain to focus more on the state's biggest city and most urban congressional district.
Both camps have their eyes on the same reward: a single electoral vote that could prove pivotal in determining the next president.
Nebraska is one of only two states that award electoral votes by congressional district, rather than on a winner-take-all basis. Obama strategists see an opportunity in the 2nd District, where disaffection with Washington and strong Democratic voter-registration efforts are narrowing the Republican advantage.
If Obama pulls an upset in this district, regardless of what happens in the rest of Nebraska, he will pick up one electoral vote toward the 270 needed to win.
Among the scenarios that strategists have spun out, both sides see the possibility of an unprecedented tie in the electoral college. If Obama won Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, for instance, and the rest of the map remained the same as in 2004, the race would be knotted at 269 to 269. The same would be true if Obama won Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado while McCain picked up New Hampshire.
Obama's Nebraska strategy is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of his campaign's determination to expand the electoral map to open as many paths as possible to win the White House. The approach has had mixed results: Traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado appear within reach, while efforts in North Dakota, Montana, Alaska and Georgia have fizzled.
"One of the keys is going to be stretching the map. If we can put all of these states into play, that will make a difference," said Jon Carson, Obama's national field director. The more competitive Obama can be, he said, the more traditionally Republican territory McCain will be forced to defend, at a cost in time and money.
The McCain campaign announced its own one-vote strategy Thursday when it said it would move field organizers to Maine in a last-minute attempt to win the largely rural 2nd Congressional District. The move to the only other state that splits its electoral votes came as McCain gave up on Michigan, one of a handful of Democratic states that he had hoped to win.
Republicans have scoffed at the notion that Obama can pick off a congressional district in Nebraska, which has never split its vote.
"Ain't going to happen," said Dave Boomer, campaign manager for Rep. Lee Terry (R), winner of five straight 2nd District races. Boomer predicted that, late one mid-October night, Obama state director John Berge "will call his staff in and say: 'We're pulling out. We're going to Scranton.' "
The Obama campaign insisted it's in town for the duration, and it announced Friday that it will open a second Omaha office this week.
Where Republicans see folly, the Obama camp spots an opening. Unlike most of Nebraska, the 2nd District has a significant minority population, with a population that is 10 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic -- groups that strongly back Obama.
The median household income in the district is about $45,000. A recent Washington Post poll showed that Obama leads by 54 percent to 41 percent among all U.S. voters with household incomes under $50,000, although McCain holds a similar advantage among white voters in that category.
Democrats point out that a political newcomer -- 30-year-old businessman Jim Esch -- won 45 percent of the vote against Terry in 2006. Esch is running again this year, and party leaders like his chances well enough that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is contributing to his effort.
The Obama campaign also hopes to benefit from the retail politicking of Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat who has found ways to win statewide, and the influence of Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican war veteran who has criticized McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
And while the Obama campaign only recently arrived in force, residents have seen a year's worth of Obama advertisements directed at voters in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, that also air in Omaha. Obama drew 10,000 people to a Feb. 7 rally here, shortly before he swamped Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by 35 percentage points in the Nebraska caucuses.
There are potential signs of progress for Democrats. A large Republican registration advantage in Douglas County, which makes up the bulk of the 2nd District, has nearly evaporated. As of Sept. 1, Democrats had added 8,500 voters this year, while Republican registration had grown by just 108, closing the gap to around 4,000. About 58,000 voters in the county consider themselves as independents.
Those figures were recorded before the Obama campaign opened its Omaha office -- 1,113 people showed up to volunteer on the first day -- and do not reflect the recent registration efforts.
"We're certainly seeing more registrations coming in as we get closer and closer to the election," said Dave Phipps (R), election commissioner in Douglas County, who is predicting record turnout.
Phipps is the rare Republican who says publicly that Obama has a shot in the district. "It's going to be a tough battle," he said. "Swaying Republicans in Nebraska is pretty hard, but there is a significant number of nonpartisans who are up for the taking."
Phipps added that grass-roots groups not connected to Obama are mobilizing voters in Democratic precincts, particularly student enclaves and largely black neighborhoods in north Omaha where turnout is typically low.
Nonetheless, experts expect it will take a dramatic pro-Obama turnout in Omaha and its inner suburbs to overcome the expected strong Republican advantage in more rural and conservative Sarpy County, which lies partly in the 2nd District. There, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 10,000.
Boomer, Terry's campaign manager, also thinks the increasingly visible Obama effort will motivate Republicans, especially social conservatives, to turn out against him.
Walking through a heavily Republican working-class precinct in plastic ponchos, voter lists soaked by the rain, Anna Wolf and Gill Cromwell faced an uphill climb to win votes for Obama. Many people were not home. Others shook their heads firmly when asked if they would back the Illinois Democrat.
McCain is expected to win those precincts easily, but the young volunteers found a handful of possible supporters.
"I think he's more of the last eight years," said Tim Stastny, 31, a vending machine stocker, explaining why he plans to vote for Obama.
Postal worker Cheryl Foss, 48, was undecided. She has doubts about Obama's experience but prefers his middle-class tax cuts to McCain's focus on tax relief for wealthier Americans. McCain's choice of Palin particularly troubles Foss. She said of McCain, a 72-year-old melanoma survivor, "I'm afraid he might not be around and then it would be up to Palin."
More common in the neighborhood was deep skepticism about Obama.
Electrician Jeremy Miller, 30, thinks Obama would be a better president for the working class but believes the false reports that Obama -- a Christian born in Hawaii -- is actually a Muslim and a foreigner.
"Him not being an actual American, that's got me worried," Miller said. "This might be one of those years when I don't vote."
Cromwell, an 18-year-old volunteer, asked a woman whether she would support Obama.
"I doubt it," she answered.
Wolf, 22, an Obama staffer, asked whether she would like some campaign literature.
"We would encourage you to vote for Senator Barack Obama," Wolf politely persisted. "We believe he is the only person who can help bring change to Washington."
She shut the door, and the pair headed out, walking uphill, in search of any stray potential Obama supporters.