Game of political upmanship

Drogin and Abcarian are Times staff writers.

John McCain has targeted this wealthy area just north of Columbus as one of 15 counties in Ohio where he needs to drive up his vote tally if he is to beat Barack Obama on Tuesday in this must-win state.

But on Friday night, only nine volunteers manned the 24 phones in the McCain campaign office. The phone bank began operating on a daily basis just two weeks ago. And since then, only five people have shown up on most weekdays to canvass local neighborhoods.

Obama’s campaign, in contrast, has flooded this GOP bastion with volunteers. Some canvassers first hit the winding streets of nearby subdivisions in March during the Democratic primary, and they have worked almost nonstop since in search of supporters.


Ohio is a battleground in the presidential race, and here’s the view on the front line: McCain’s get-out-the-vote operation has struggled to build momentum, and it appears outgunned by Obama’s.

Both campaigns have mobilized armies of volunteers and paid staff for the final push across the state, and both claim their efforts to target likely voters are more sophisticated and more efficient than in 2004. In that contest, President Bush won reelection by beating back a stiff challenge from Democratic nominee John F. Kerry in Ohio.

Back then, Bush’s aides started early in the year and built an elaborate ground-up organization that focused on driving up the GOP vote here in Delaware County and similar, fast-growing exurbs that surround Cincinnati, Dayton and Cleveland.

This time, the Democrats have shifted strategies -- and may have the upper hand.

Learning from the Bush effort, Obama has taken his fight directly into suburban and rural GOP strongholds in an effort to curb McCain’s potential margins. Obama has 82 offices in the state, nearly twice as many as McCain. Labor unions are backing his effort with more than 12,000 volunteers.

“McCain does not have the kind of ground organization that Obama has, not even close,” said Nancy Martorano, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

“I’ve never seen anything like the Obama ground game,” agreed Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. “It is light-years ahead of what the Democrats did four years ago.”

Some Republican leaders in Ohio complain that McCain didn’t open his state headquarters until June, three months after he secured the nomination, and that the state campaign appears top-heavy and run in part by outsiders.

McCain campaign officials insist they have contacted more voters than Bush’s team did four years ago, and they tout their use of voice-over-Internet technology to improve and expand the effort.

The devices enable volunteers at GOP phone banks to punch buttons that instantly update a database called Voter Vault, which collects details on individual voters from dozens of public sources, such as magazine subscriptions and car registrations.

Using the data, the campaign can mail different fliers to different voter groups. Military veterans may hear about McCain’s views on Iraq, and some church groups may receive information about his opposition to abortion. Jewish voters may learn about McCain’s support for Israel.

“Every single mailbox needs a different message,” said Ryan Meerstein, McCain’s state director. “And we can do that. We can hit you with what is most important to you.”

But the campaign didn’t send the high-tech phones to some vote-rich areas it needs on election day.

“We’re still on cellphones and use pen and pencil,” said Pat Hennessy, GOP chairman in conservative Muskingum County, about 50 miles east of Columbus. “I don’t know what they’re collecting. They don’t tell me.”

Equally important, perhaps, McCain’s campaign still wasn’t canvassing in many areas last week.

“We’ve mostly done weekends until now,” said Linda Smith, GOP chairwoman in Clark County, west of the capital.

McCain faces other potential difficulties in Delaware County, which has 165,000 residents and is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties.

In 2004, Bush swamped Kerry 2 to 1 in the wealthy subdivisions and shopping malls carved out of rich farmland that abuts the capital. But when foreclosure signs started sprouting and Bush’s popularity began to crater, the GOP stronghold began to fracture.

In 2006, the county gave a whisker-thin margin to Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who led a Democratic near-sweep of state offices, including the secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer.

The local economy has only worsened since.

Ed Helvey, the county Democratic chairman, said that Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registrations for the first time.

“We are working our tails off,” he said. “The Republicans had it in ’04. It was like electricity in the air -- you could feel it.”

This year, he said, Democrats were more visible than Republicans.

Still, Republicans were out in force in the town of Delaware, the county seat, on Saturday morning. At a restaurant called Buns, Rep. John A. Boehner, who represents a district near Cincinnati and is the House Republican leader, joined a breakfast for Rep. Pat Tiberi, who represents Delaware County. Boehner said he was unimpressed with the Obama ground game in Ohio.

“They’ve got people out there?” he asked. “So what? They don’t have a candidate or a message that appeals to people in rural areas and exurbs.”

But there was no sign that either congressman was stumping for McCain. Most supporters wore Tiberi T-shirts, and the two buses parked outside sported only Boehner and Tiberi signs.

Obama’s campaign office was around the corner. About 30 canvassers already were out knocking on doors, including Jenifer Burks, a former Republican and part-time worker at Pizza Hut, who began working at an Obama phone bank eight months ago.

On Hearthstone Drive, she knocked on Monica Thompson’s door. The young mother’s entry hall was a jumble of kids’ jackets and boots. The house got five calls from the Obama campaign on Halloween, she said, and someone left literature on her door the other day.

“I’m voting for Obama,” Thompson said.

“How about your husband?” Burks asked.

She replied that her husband, Jeremy, was an independent voter who had not made up his mind. But she added that they had not heard from anyone in the McCain campaign -- not by phone, by mail or in person.

Burks smiled and made a note on her clipboard.

“If you’re undecided,” she promised, “we’re going to talk to you till we know what you’re doing.”


Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.