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March 3, 2008 12:02 PM

Visit to campaign headquarters reveals Texas strategies

Posted by Richard Wagoner

This post is by Liz Burlingame, a University of Washington student who, along with other members of professor David Domke's blogging class, is filing reports from Texas in advance of Tuesday key primary election there. Go here to see other dispatches from the class.

“Look at this place…” University of Washington student Devon Hampton said, as he entered the backroom bar area of Historic Victory Grill in downtown Austin, Texas. Through the diffused blue lighting, we could see the walls were covered with yellowed photos of African American singers and songwriters. The room was empty except for a few worn tables and chairs.

The sign outside said, “Austin’s first home of the blues.”

Hampton was here searching for a man named Clifford Gillard, a Barack Obama supporter who needed volunteer help for the evenings’ Early Vote Party. “Have you guys seen Clifford?” Hampton asked two older men as we returned outside.

They hadn’t, but they directed us to Obama headquarters only a few blocks away. The location was virtually indiscernible from the rest of the community (aside from the Spanish-English Obama posters and blue and red streamers on the outside). This small operation was nestled in between residential homes and a nearby liquor store.

Inside, we saw a wave of activity. Volunteers were practically working on top of each other, in this confined space, compiling polling locations and taking calls. One man squeezed by us in the hallway, carrying a large stack of lawn signs that would be sold at the night’s event.

Orangeburg Region Organizer Derrick Nayo said we missed Clifford. Minutes ago, he left for Victory Grill, the place we’d originally come from.

On the walk back, I noticed just how rich the area was in Obama support, with signs in windows and yards. Many were written in Spanish such as “Cambio Ahora. Viva Obama!”

Organizers Gillard and Ian Davis met us at the chain-link fence as we approached the field. That morning, we’d heard Davis appeared on the front page of the Washington Post for his skillful event organization in the Obama campaign at the grassroots level. But his national attention wasn’t on the agenda. Davis was too focused on rearranging tables to bring in a better flow of people, pulling kegs off of pick-up trucks and figuring out ways to keep local politicians from bogarting the events.

Gillard, on the other hand, was taking orders from Barbara Rush, an Obama volunteer who wasn’t afraid to get hands-on (she sat behind a shed picking up glass with her bare hands, so children wouldn’t get hurt). Gillard is originally from Trinidad and has lived in the country for about 10 years. On several occasions, he was asked to stand on stage with Obama during his rallies.

“It was an honor but I said no, I was scared,” Gillard said. “People thought I was crazy.”

For over three hours, the three volunteers worked in the afternoon heat before additional help arrived. Gillard placed little emphasis on their effort. “This is just what we have to do. It makes sense to me,” Gillard said.

This sort of sweat on the brow, grassroots campaigning has become an integral part of Obama’s strategy. Obama is quick to stress his roots as a community organizer and routinely thanks his precinct captains at events. “Change doesn't happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up,” he said in recent speeches.

As Ari Berman reports in the Nation, Obama’s organization is also enhanced by new technologies such as YouTube, Facebook and Myspace.

The net effect is Obama's large base of small donors, who are enthusiastic supporters he can tap again and again. Ninety percent of the $28 million he raised online in January, for example, came in donations of $100 or less. Obama has fused a tightknit group of advisers with a mass of ordinary people, creating what Trippi calls "command and control at the top while empowering the bottom to make a difference."

His progressive party building is bringing in thousands of small donors; a rather sharp contrast to the Clinton campaign. The Clinton’s are taking a more traditional, top-down approach. Since 1992, the Clintons have used the DNC as an outpost for raising money from big donors. Her campaign is dominated by an inner circle of top strategists, leaving little room for grassroots input.

At Clinton’s main headquarters in Austin, where we spent most of Friday, staff member Jason Wayne Cox admitted, “We don’t like talking about strategy much here.” Clinton’s base is located in between downtown Austin and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, just off the main stretch of highway.

The headquarters are made up of three spacious rooms, with air-conditioning, florescent lights and motivational posters and quotes (the layout isn’t much different than Obama’s main headquarters, located on the University of Texas).

Cox said he took time off work to fly down from Tennessee and volunteer. At one point, he worked as an intern in Hillary’s office. “I know her for who she is and she’s not this intimidating figure that the press represents; she’s really warm,” Cox said.

He said Clinton is bringing in a very diverse crowd, due to the diversity of the area. Obama’s headquarters seem to be set up in very specific areas of town that target specialized groups (young voters, minority voters).

However, we noticed volunteers were not trickling in as often as at the Obama headquarters and it took almost 15 minutes for an Austin press secretary to free up enough time to speak with us. On weekdays it seemed the staff were spread thin.

After a revisit Saturday, we saw an influx of people volunteering to distribute signs and others coming in for training, to caucus for Clinton on Tuesday. Linda Pemberton said she was torn on who to caucus for until the Clinton campaign contacted her.

“They told me about her experience record and she just seems like she’s much more qualified,” Pemberton said.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Clinton strategy will be conducive to gaining more of these voters. As Berman argues, by limiting herself to a small group of wealthy donors rather than a large group of small doners, she’s less likely to expand the base of the party.

However, current polls show the race is in a dead heat.

In the next few days, volunteers from each campaign will be canvassing, vote training, hosting visibility rallies and phoning before Tuesday’s caucus. Their efforts could be the determining factor in their candidates’ success and one thing is sure: both sides consider success inevitable.

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