Out to boost Obama’s Nevada odds

Times Staff Writer

Vanessa DiStefano knocked on an apartment door on the city’s east side Saturday morning, and a small, frail woman answered. She was 98 years old, the daughter of a slave and, most importantly, an undecided voter.

DiStefano and her boyfriend, Josh Olson, Los Angeles residents who traveled to Nevada to canvass for Barack Obama, spent the next 15 minutes asking her what she thought about the election and telling her why they liked the Democratic candidate. When they left, they were confident they had won Obama another convert.

“She told us she had asked God for a sign,” DiStefano, 31, said. “After talking to her for a while, it was clear that she had found it.”

As election day nears, thousands of Californians are trekking to Nevada to try to swing the Silver State blue. It may happen. Obama has led all the state polls this month even though Nevada hasn’t sided with a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996.

Obama aides won’t say how many Californians have headed east, but staffers acknowledged they are putting extra emphasis on their “Drive for Change” campaign to get Californians to Nevada. John McCain’s campaign has no equivalent effort, although there are Californians heading to Nevada to stump for the Republican, according to Rick Gorka, McCain’s western regional communications director.


DiStefano and Olson traveled to Las Vegas with a group organized by Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles City Council president who is Obama’s Southern California chairman. At the group’s orientation at the Tropicana Hotel, college students sat alongside grandparents, and first-time volunteers were next to veteran campaigners.

Sam Lieberman, chairman of the Nevada State Democratic Party, began with a presentation about the state’s political landscape.

Republicans have typically outnumbered Democrats, but this year Democrats have a 94,000-voter advantage. The shift stems from interest in the Democratic caucus in January, but also from the state’s lagging economy. Nevada’s unemployment rate is at a 23-year high, and it has the worst foreclosure rate in the country -- and many Nevadans blame the Republican governor, Jim Gibbons.

Though Obama’s chances look good, Lieberman said the next three weeks would be crucial. “There is so much to do and so little time to do it,” he said. A few minutes later, a field director with the Obama campaign gave volunteers some tips. Las Vegas is “no Berkeley,” he warned, so volunteers should be prepared for encounters with McCain supporters. Whatever they do, volunteers should not pick political fights, he said. “Nevada is a battleground state, but you’re not actually here to battle.”

Each volunteer was given a “walk kit,” an envelope with pamphlets about Obama (some in Spanish), information on early voting, and the names and addresses of 40 or so voters whom the campaign has identified as Democrats or as “persuadable independents” (a full 15% of Nevadans are registered independent).

Then, the campaign turned the volunteers loose.

“I absolutely hate knocking on doors and talking to strangers,” Karen Klabin admitted as she and her family headed to their assigned precinct. “But this is just so important.”

Half an hour later, Klabin, who was wearing a “Mamas for Obama” button, was smiling nervously at a door in an apartment complex on the east side, talking with 63-year-old Karl Johnson.

Klabin and the volunteers didn’t come to Nevada just to talk to voters about their candidate -- they were also gathering intelligence. The campaign asks volunteers to characterize each voter with an “Obama ID” -- which gauges their support for the candidate. The final stretch is known as the “persuasion period,” and the campaign wants to make sure it focuses on people who can be counted on to vote for Obama.

A few miles away, Garcetti and several friends were canvassing a neighborhood near the Boulder Station casino. Garcetti had just convinced a die-hard supporter of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to vote for Obama, but many voters weren’t home. When he came to an empty house, he would scrawl a message on a pamphlet and tuck it under the doormat.

“Rhoda -- we would love your support,” read one. “Thanks for your consideration.”

If an e-mail address was included with the voter’s name, Garcetti pulled out his BlackBerry and sent a message.

As he walked on this windy day, Garcetti talked about his support for Obama.

“I read his book and it felt like the conversation that was going on inside my own head,” he said. They met in 2006, while Obama was running for U.S. Senate. A year later, after Obama spoke in L.A., Obama asked Garcetti to head his campaign’s Southern California chapter.

Garcetti campaigned hard for Obama in the primaries, including in Nevada. “Out here is where the real conversation is,” he said.

As Garcetti knocked on the door of a modest brown stucco home, the owner pulled up in a red pickup.

John Wallace, 47, had just gotten off the 3 a.m.-to-11 a.m. shift at the Flamingo Hotel’s loading dock. Wallace looked suspiciously at the stranger in his driveway who wanted to talk politics.

Garcetti asked which issue mattered most to him.

The economy, Wallace said. The whole neighborhood was hurting, and his neighbors had their home foreclosed.

“I’ll bet you make less than $200,000 a year, right?” Garcetti asked.

Wallace leaned against the hood of his truck and nodded.

“Well, then Barack Obama would give you a tax break,” Garcetti said.

As the conversation ended, Wallace said, “I’m kind of leaning towards Obama.”

By sundown Saturday, the volunteers straggled back to the hotel, tired and rosy-cheeked from the cold. (“I thought Las Vegas was supposed to be warm,” one woman griped.) Many, like DiStefano, said they thought they had converted a voter or two.

But for every success, there was a door slammed or a voter whose misgivings bordered on bigotry (“ ‘Obama’ is too close to ‘Osama,’ ” one voter told a volunteer).

As they swapped stories, the volunteers came to a consensus: The economy was on the mind of almost every voter.

“I expected people to want to talk about the war,” said Aaron Garfield, a 31-year-old attorney who served in Iraq. “But it’s the economy, stupid!”

Garfield, who went to Nevada to “do something tangible” for Obama’s campaign, said his time canvassing in Las Vegas’ downtrodden neighborhoods had been eye-opening. “I usually come to Vegas to hang out at the casino, never to see the real Vegas,” he said.

Although he was fighting a cold, Garfield said that he, like most of the volunteers, would be up bright and early Sunday to canvass some more.