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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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April 21, 2008 4:19 PM

A Seattle blogger peeks inside Obama's Pennsylvania campaign

Posted by Richard Wagoner

This post was written by Liz Burlingame, a student in UW professor David Domke's journalism class. More of the students' work can be found here.

PITTSBURGH - The man made a beeline to our car in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh as we exited, having just parked outside of Barack Obama’s campaign office. He was wearing a heavy, waterproof jacket with fleece lining, and sweat was pouring down his face. It was 80 degrees.

“Hi, I’m Bob,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’m an Obama volunteer… and I’m homeless.”

Then he reached for our trunk, to help us open it.

The car alarm to our rental PT Cruiser went off and no amount of button mashing could silence it. (Later we found out we’d hit the panic button). Bob stood on the sidewalk repeating, “You ladies are hopeless.”

He might have been right.

Bob told me he was working office garbage duty that afternoon and pointed to the dumpsters in the alleyway.

“I can lift just about anything,” he said.

Bob - who asked to have his last name withheld - said he became involved with the Obama campaign during a walk down Highland Mall Avenue last month when he noticed an Obama volunteer dragging cases of water down the street. Bob stopped her, lifted all of the cases at once and was instantly recruited. He’s usually asked to make phone calls or take out garbage, and in exchange the campaign staff provides him with food and water.

Bob led us to the office entrance and the three of us went inside.

Most of the volunteers were clustered in one room, reminding me of the Obama office in the Orangeburg region of Austin, Texas, which I saw during coverage of the state’s primary last month. Orangeburg, like East Liberty, is a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

However, the first staffer who met with us quickly proved this office didn’t have the chaotic, organic feel of Austin; it was regimented. Staffers loomed over us as we conducted interviews (which we heard was policy) and upon my first conversation with a volunteer, I was told by campaign workers I could interview her, then I couldn’t, then I could again. Volunteer Janice Golding debriefed with a staffer afterward, revealing what she said to us.

It was an interesting interaction, since the Obama press manager who greeted us at the door had told us volunteers were encouraged to talk to the press.

Brian Schreiber, a first-time volunteer who was there with his 12-year-old son Joshua, agreed to talk with me after I promised I wouldn’t get yelled at again.

He was making phone calls to fellow Pittsburgh residents, encouraging them to turn out for the primaries. He handed the cell phone to Joshua and said, “This is his first call.”

To Joshua he said, “Now don’t get frustrated, it’ll take a while to get someone to pick up.”

While splitting his focus between his son’s call and my questions, Schreiber said he was there because of Obama’s honesty, and believes he can best uphold the Constitution. He said Obama’s comments about Pennsylvanians “bitter” nature hasn’t dissuaded him.

“It’s accurate,” he said. “People are bitter.”

Schreiber said he’s disappointed in Hillary Clinton’s criticisms of Obama. In a recent Pennsylvania television ad, Clinton supporters hammered Obama for his small town comments. “The good people of Pennsylvania deserve a lot better than what Barack Obama said,” one Clinton supporter said.

“She was desperate to find anything against Obama,” Schreiber said. “I think it’s cheap, I think it’s dishonest and it’s a diversion.”

While most of the Obama supporters we met with used “honest” to describe Obama, “fighter” is the buzz word for Clinton, said Clinton press secretary Kristin Lee. And of course there’s the standbys for the candidates of “change” and “experience.”

The Clinton campaign’s headquarters are one level above Baskets Galore and Pizza Fiesta in downtown Pittsburgh. After hitting the buzzer to Clinton’s campaign office five or six times, we met with two volunteers, who couldn’t or at least wouldn’t give us their names.

Initially, I thought the hesitancy of both camps might have been due to recent slip-ups by the candidates. After Clinton’s sniper fire story and Obama’s bitter comment, if I was working in a campaign office, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for accidentally fueling more media hysteria. But staffers assured me that’s not the case. It’s policy.

Clinton’s Pitt Building office was spacious - meeting rooms, offices, impressive archways - but it was almost empty. Nine volunteers manned the phones and I assumed most people were out canvassing.

Press Secretary Lee, really the only person willing and able to talk to us, said that although Obama is outspending Clinton 4-1 in advertising in Pennsylvania, Clinton is leading the polls. Lee attributes that to building upon grassroots support.

Both candidates are still vying for the Steelworkers endorsement in Pittsburgh and also the youth vote.

Lee said Obama doesn’t have the monopoly on college support, even though she admits Obama's support in that group is significant. Students for Hillary groups and could be turning votes in her favor, but my fellow Seattlepoliticore reporter Laura and I wanted more substantial answers. We didn’t find them in Clinton’s office.

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