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Gleaning Votes For Obama in A GOP Bastion

Volunteer Harriet Carter talks with Robert Shirley, center, and Earl Taylor as she seeks votes for Barack Obama at a Manassas mobile home park. Prince William and Manassas can be tough places to find votes for Democratic presidential candidates.
Volunteer Harriet Carter talks with Robert Shirley, center, and Earl Taylor as she seeks votes for Barack Obama at a Manassas mobile home park. Prince William and Manassas can be tough places to find votes for Democratic presidential candidates. (By Courtland Milloy -- The Washington Post)

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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Carrying a shoulder bag full of Barack Obama campaign literature, Harriet Carter set out for another weekend of door-to-door chats with voters in Prince William County and Manassas. But the neighborhood she was assigned to canvass this time was unlike any she'd visited before. It was the Manassas Mobile Home Park, and a yard sign displayed near the entrance read: "Stop the Obama Express."

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Although low-income voters are thought to favor Democrats as a rule, the Republican stronghold in Manassas crosses economic lines. For Obama volunteers trying to help the Democratic presidential nominee win Virginia's hotly contested 13 electoral votes, a trailer park can be as much of a battleground as can a gated community.

Carter went to work, striking up a conversation with two men repairing plumbing beneath a trailer. Earl Taylor, 43, and Robert Shirley, 58, said they hadn't decided whom to vote for and professed not to see any real difference between Obama and John McCain, the Republican nominee -- "except," as Shirley put it, "one is a veteran and a former POW."

Sensing that the exception was significant to them, Carter changed the subject to herself. "Guess how old I am?" she asked.

When the men demurred, she declared unabashedly, "I'm 62, and I retired after working 35 and a half years for a trade association in Alexandria. My salary was flat for the last six years, and now, with the economy in shambles, I might have to go back to work, if I can find a job."

Shirley responded sympathetically. He had retired after working 35 years for the Arlington County parks division. "I spent over $3,000 last year to heat my trailer," he said. "I might have to find another job."

Taylor, a plumber, chimed in: "See those two propane tanks? The cost has risen to $700 apiece, and they only last for 45 days. I may have to start burning furniture if it gets any worse."

Carter took that as a cue to make her pitch. And when she began to speak of Obama as the candidate most likely to cut their taxes, lower their heating bills and keep the furniture from going up in smoke, they were all ears.

Making voters feel that they are heard and cared about has been the key to the success of Obama's phenomenal house-to-house campaign strategy. Carter takes on the mission with a relentless, near-evangelical fervor. For the past month or so, she has spent up to six hours a day meeting with prospective voters. She even leaves handwritten notes along with campaign literature for those who are not at home.

"I've never done anything like this. I've never been politically involved, ever," she said.

Born in what was then East Germany, Carter came to the United States in 1972 and contented herself with a steady job and quiet family life in the Virginia countryside. Then came George W. Bush, whose Republican administration she says waged "preemptive" war, engaged in domestic spying and torture and mismanaged the nation's economy.

"It was one thing after another, and finally I just said, 'Enough.' "


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