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Gleaning Votes For Obama in A GOP Bastion

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."

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.' "

When Carter comes across someone who feels the same way, her delight is palpable.

Judy Gulich, 62, peered out from behind a partially opened trailer door and said she was voting for Obama. "I'm tired of the rich getting richer. Do something for poor people for a change," she said.

"Yes," Carter exclaimed. "That's what I want to hear."

According to some researchers, face-to-face talks can increase the chances of voters' turning out by 7 to 10 percent. Carter can only hope that her efforts pay off so well.

"Have you liked the last eight years?" Carter asked Louise Short, 79, a retired cook and lifelong Republican who was leaning toward McCain.

"Yes, I've done pretty good," Short said. "Worked until I was 70. I'm feeling pretty secure."

Carter gave her a melancholy smile and said, "A lot of people aren't doing too good."

That struck a nerve with Short. "It's a shame they took those people's money, Wall Street people taking from the middle class like that."

Carter agreed and then held out some Obama campaign literature, just in case Short wanted to look at it later. She took a pamphlet.

"I just might change my mind," Short said. "Who knows?"

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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