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Grass-roots networks in Kansas connecting online

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

MCPHERSON, Kan. - On a sultry morning in central Kansas, a discount store parking lot hummed with pickup trucks filled with families who had come to buy fireworks in a large tent set up for the Fourth of July holiday.

Off to the side, Merrilee Meisner, a middle-aged bank worker, and John Patterson, a self-employeed Web consultant, sat behind a wooden table stacked with voter registration cards and sign-up sheets for Democrat Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

The two had just met for the first time that morning, brought together by Obama's website, which helps supporters connect with others locally and organize events - like Patterson's voter registration drive. In a rural area of a state so red that it that has not chosen a Democrat for president since 1964, few people ventured over to their table. But Meisner said she didn't mind. She had learned how to register voters, and she had met Patterson, who was already planning an even bigger drive for the Kansas State Fair in nearby Hutchinson later in the summer.

"I'll help you there!" she told him.

In the five months since the Kansas caucuses, the grass-roots networks of supporters who helped carry Obama to a 3-to-1 victory over Clinton in Kansas have mostly lain fallow. But now, as the summer begins, they are connecting online and trying to add to their ranks.

With minimal assistance so far from Obama's official campaign, small groups are gathering to strategize in living rooms and coffee shops, holding voter registration drives and, in a couple of Democratic strongholds such as Lawrence, campaigning door to door. Many are new supporters who have never worked for a candidate before.

Surely the odds for Obama are long in Kansas. Democrats make up only about a quarter of registered voters.

Political experts say he is only likely to prevail if there is a national Democratic landslide. Republicans, for their part, remain confident: "John McCain is going to win Kansas," said Mike Pompeo, the state's Republican National Committeeman-elect.

Judging by the activity on the Obama website, the volunteer brigade in Kansas so far is relatively small, and it is hardly clear that it could swing Kansas to the Democrats. It could, however, force McCain to spend more money in the state. Even supporters who acknowledge the enormity of the challenge say they believe the Obama ranks are growing. Dan Watkins, a veteran Democratic activist, had 30 people sign up to attend an Obama party at his home in Lawrence last month.

"I think all 30 of them will have their own meetings in their own homes or neighborhoods," he said.

Some supporters point to recent polls of Kansas voters have shown John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, as few as 10 points ahead of Obama; President Bush beat John Kerry here by 25 points.

They also note that Obama's maternal grandparents were Kansans, and his mother was born in the state.

"It's going to be tough," Patterson said. "But he's as close as anybody's been in a long time."

Obama's lopsided victories in caucuses in Kansas and other heavily Republican states last February helped him survive the pummeling he got in the big blue states like New York and California, and they provided an important rationale for his candidacy: He would be a different kind of Democrat who could put traditionally Republican states in play. Obama won states like Kansas partly because, unlike Hillary Clinton, he spent months organizing them.

But in the general election, Kansas is unlikely to get much attention from the national campaign. The Democratic National Committee, however, has put four field organizers on the ground in Kansas in the last few years, and the state party has already signed up more than 2,000 people for neighborhood-based campaigning, part of the DNC's national grass-roots strategy. But though Obama has pledged to send staffers to all 50 states, as of early this month, none had arrived yet in Kansas, which did not make the list of red states where the campaign plans a strong push, such as Colorado, Georgia, and North Dakota.

But his supporters seem content to work independently, using the campaign website to plan local activities, like a bake sale in the college town of Lawrence held recently. Mary Coral, a 76-year-old retired artist and social worker, showed up with a batch of chocolate rum balls, not knowing what to expect.

"The tables were just covered with goodies," she said, adding that the event raised more than $600 for the campaign.

Obama's campaign in Kansas began more than a year ago, when he began attracting veteran Democratic activists such as Watkins, who agreed to house the Obama state director when he arrived last October, the first of a team that numbered about 20 by caucus night.

Watkins said the Obama campaign was the largest grass-roots effort he had seen in Kansas in 30 years. The massive turnout, he said - 37,000 showed up, compared with 1,700 in 2004 - was clearly "an organized phenomenon."

But many volunteers never got to know one another. One of this campaign year's innovations, technology that allows supporters to make phone calls from their own homes, using a call list provided by the campaign, rather than from land lines at an old-fashioned phone bank, made the volunteer experience more convenient but, for some, less social.

Meisner used the Web tool to make some calls to Kansans before the caucus, and to voters in other primary states after that. Then she decided to reach out to others nearby. She created a group for the city of Hutchinson on the Kansas section of the Obama site, which has served as a virtual gathering place and bulletin board.

That is how Patterson, a veteran organizer from Lindsborg, a small city an hour away, recruited Meisner for his Independence Day registration drive - an idea encouraged by the national campaign, which would benefit from increased turnout among new voters. Though apprehensive about driving to a new place and meeting with a stranger, Meisner said her excitement about the campaign got the better of her.

"I wanted to get some experience registering voters, to see what it's like," she said, adding that she is planning another drive with someone she met on her Web page.

The Kansas website has also drawn new supporters who did not volunteer during the caucuses.

Last month, Marietta Anderson, a retired gas company communications specialist who also had never been involved in presidential politics before, visited the campaign website to see what was going on near her.

She discovered that the campaign was asking supporters to hold "Unite for Change" house parties on June 28, the day after Clinton's and Obama's joint appearance in Unity, N.H.

"I wanted to take some action instead of just sitting around," she said.

Curious to see who would show up, she invited only a couple of friends and let the website do the rest.

Of the two dozen who responded, 21 people came - high school students and grandparents, Democrats and Republicans, political newcomers and Margalee Wright, a former mayor of Wichita.

All but a few were people Anderson didn't know. One was Verna Roth, a retired English teacher who described herself as politically apathetic since John F. Kennedy's campaign.

"They just all talked about how they'd become disillusioned by presidential campaigns and politicians, but this was the first time they felt really inspired," said Roth as she sat next to Anderson at a voter registration table in a Wichita shopping center, the first event the group planned at the party. "It was just delightful. Heartwarming."

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