Stephanie Burns and Ben Parkinson strolled down sun-drenched Fillmore Street with political thievery on their minds.
Both are grass-roots volunteers for Republican presidential contender Ron Paul, a Texas congressman whose libertarian views might seem to make him a tough sell in this legendarily left-wing city.
But Burns, Parkinson and other Paul supporters have been spending their weekends marching, staffing tables and knocking on doors in an improbable quest: picking up some of California’s 173 convention delegates in the Feb. 5 primary.
On the surface, the plan seems quixotic given general assumptions about California: that the state is too big for retail politics, and that campaign victory requires expensive TV ads in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento.
But for the Republicans, that changed when the state party amended its rules before the 2004 primary. Instead of awarding all the state’s delegates to whomever wins the statewide vote, the GOP doles out three delegates to the winner of each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. (Eleven at-large delegates also go to the top vote-getter in the state, and three more delegates are unpledged.)
The rule change might seem arcane, but it has forced campaigns to reach into the state’s nooks and crannies beyond key media markets.
And it has emboldened Paul supporters to organize here in San Francisco, across the bay in Oakland and in other districts with relatively few Republicans, under the theory that it’s easier for a small fish to campaign in a small pond.
“We don’t have to chase that many people,” said Burns, a construction site manager from Sausalito who leads a 345-member group of Bay Area Paul supporters who came together through Meetup.com. “That’s what makes it attractive.”
Under the rules, whoever wins in San Francisco’s District 8 -- represented by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and containing 34,000 registered Republicans -- will receive the same number of delegates as the top vote-getter in Orange County District 48, held by John Campbell, with 200,000 Republicans.
In Pelosi’s district, the winning threshold is low.
Primary voter turnout historically is less than 50%, which means fewer than 17,000 Republicans are likely to vote. With a wide field of candidates, the number of votes to win a plurality -- and the district’s three delegates -- is likely to be just a few thousand.
“To me, that’s a jewel waiting to be plucked,” said Jerry Collins, a retired workers’ compensation analyst and Paul volunteer. “The Republican Party is split, with maybe 30% following along with Bush and will never let go. About 30% is also very much opposed to the war. . . . It’s real doable if we can reach those Republicans and get converts from, first of all, the [registered] Libertarians and independents.”
Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican strategist not working with any of the presidential contenders, said the Paul volunteers “are probably overly optimistic, but it’s the right way of thinking.”
The new allocation rules mean that the major candidates will probably focus more on direct mail and voter contact than on television ads. And, Schnur said, the campaigns will need to be more diffuse.
“You’re going to see each campaign target its message toward those geographic areas where they’ve got the greatest chance of success,” Schnur said. “You’re going to see five or six parallel campaigns going on simultaneously in different parts of the state. . . . Direct mail and e-mail and volunteer contacts become that much more valuable.”
But so far the leading Republican contenders -- former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson -- have done little overt organizing at the congressional district level. They are running relatively light traditional statewide campaigns as they focus on the “kingmaker” early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and, to a lesser extent, Nevada and South Carolina.
“We’re very conscious of the unique opportunities to be very creative,” said Robert Stutzman, a senior advisor to Romney in California. “We’re very confident in what we’re doing to help capitalize on what we think will be a slingshot effect for Gov. Romney on Feb. 5.”
Stutzman said strategists were aware of the Paul volunteer efforts.
“I think the Paul campaign may perform better than people expect in some places in the country, but by the time that comes to California, a lot of the wind will be out of the sails,” Stutzman said. “The challenge among his followers is to actually make sure they are dealing with registered Republicans. The activist base is very libertarian, just not necessarily Republican.”
The Giuliani campaign did not respond to requests for detail on its California strategy.
The Paul supporters have been buoyed by the fact that Paul raised more than $5 million nationally in the third quarter, almost as much as Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Still, a new Field Poll released Thursday showed Paul with 4% support in California, far behind Giuliani with 25%, Romney with 13% and McCain and Thompson with 12%.
Harvey H. Hukari, a longtime Republican strategist in San Francisco unaligned with a presidential campaign, said the Paul volunteers seemed to be on the right track for pulling a possible upset in the district, despite potential weaknesses.
“They don’t come into it with any alliances,” Hukari said. “I’m not sure they’re the best ones to put [the strategy] into effect. They’re not familiar with the electorate.”
The solution: Add to the GOP pool.
“If you can’t reach the hard-core Republican voters with the Ron Paul message, the way to combat that is with new voters,” Hukari said.
Burns and the other volunteers hope door-knocking and other efforts will help draw supporters. They’re asking Libertarians to re-register as Republicans to be eligible to vote in the primary, and urging antiwar conservative independents to do the same. But the climb is steep.
On a recent Saturday, the Paul volunteers were largely ignored by passersby at the Ferry Terminal farmer’s market, a popular morning stop for San Franciscans at the foot of Market Street.
Then they hit the pavement. On the first block of Fillmore Street, Burns and Parkinson had 18 addresses of Republicans or independents. A little before noon on a beautiful autumn day, only two people answered. One took fliers -- after complaining that his breakfast was being interrupted. The other offered a “Not interested” through the speaker at the gate.
Collins, though, sees an even bigger hurdle than reaching potential supporters by going door to door: channeling enthusiasm. Paul has drawn volunteers with little or no campaign experience.
“These folks are as active as can be,” Collins said. “But it’s getting them focused on the task at hand rather than traipsing all over the countryside that’s the challenge.”