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Obama’s ground-level supporters put to the test

To win the White House, Barack Obama and his political team built a vast grass-roots network of supporters and volunteers that came to be considered one of the most valuable assets in American politics. Their ambition after the election was to reshape the network, with its trained organizers and 13 million e-mail addresses, into a ground-level force to push the new president’s policy goals.

But now, entering a crucial congressional recess month in which Obama’s healthcare plan faces stiffened opposition, some members of the network say that the group is still figuring out how to operate. Some also say their work has been slowed by tensions over tactics, disenchantment among some core supporters and an effective GOP resistance.

In Farmington, Mo., Obama backer Craig Hartel wonders why the movement has balked at pressuring centrist Democrats who are wavering on whether to support a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers.

In Chester, Va., Beth Kimbriel often volunteers 40 hours a week to persuade locals to support Obama. But with critics of the healthcare plan so prominently grabbing headlines and spreading what she calls misinformation, Kimbriel finds that “it’s difficult to be believed” when she lays out the president’s position.

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And in Cary, N.C., Murray Silverstone, inspired by the election and eager to pitch in on the healthcare fight, wonders why staffers didn’t arrive in his area and begin trying to reconstruct the campaign system until five weeks ago.

“It wasn’t clear to us why there was such a delay,” said Silverstone, an astronomer who fits in volunteer work amid his research and college teaching.

The early challenges faced by the network, Organizing for America, present problems for the president and his ambitions for overhauling healthcare policy.

With public skepticism rising over Obama’s plan, which is still being worked out with Congress, Democrats were hoping that the August recess would provide a chance to explain the complex and, in some cases, fear-inducing legislation to a nervous public. But Republicans, talk radio and conservative advocacy groups have seized the moment, drowning out that opportunity through a campaign to disrupt Democratic town hall meetings.

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Beyond the healthcare debate, the network’s troubles suggest that even a well-tuned campaign operation -- with its stable of trained organizers, precinct captains and neighborhood coordinators -- is not easily transformed into a policymaking force that Obama might rely on to deliver on other issues, such as global warming and immigration legislation.

The network is powered by local volunteers who often have left-leaning goals. But the president, now that he is in office, has in many cases adopted a centrist approach that accommodates Republicans and business groups.

That means some activists are being asked to devote evenings and weekends to build support for policies they may feel only lukewarm about.

Last year, “Obama’s sexy, he was hot, and everybody wanted a piece of that,” said Candice Davies, a speech therapist in Cary who trained canvassers for last year’s campaign and is trying to organize support for healthcare legislation. “Now, people are going to have to work for something that is not quite as slick or sexy.”

Officials in charge of the network concede that opponents of the healthcare overhaul have been more organized than Democrats had expected.

But they say Organizing for America, which was known as Obama for America during the presidential campaign, is quietly and deliberately building a system of professional field organizers and trained volunteers that has already inspired thousands of community events and reached millions of people.

Staffers have been hired so far in 42 states, said the group’s deputy director, Jeremy Bird, and he expects to have paid workers in every state in a matter of weeks.

“We’ve been methodical, dogged and focused,” Bird said. “It’s like in the early days of the campaign, people said we needed to be louder, to have more signs. But we focused on the conversations between people and neighbors, and that’s what worked.”

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Organizing for America’s website displays hundreds of upcoming events, ranging from tiny house parties to solicitations to match the conservative presence at town hall meetings. With new online tools, supporters can tell their own healthcare stories to be distributed to lawmakers, and network members can monitor their colleagues’ calls to Capitol Hill.

A Democratic National Convention spokesman, Hari Sevugan, argued that the Obama network ultimately would prove more effective than the GOP approach because “grass-roots efforts are won at the doors, with neighbors talking to neighbors, not in front of news cameras with folks screaming at members of a community.”

Tony Mack, a Massachusetts volunteer for the group, said he has had no trouble in recent days recruiting people to staff phone banks, asking voters in Maine to keep the heat on Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican who is undecided on the healthcare bill.

“I’ve actually been impressed by how excited people are to help,” Mack said.

But unlike the campaign, divisions are evident as the network is transformed.

The fate of Obama’s health and energy plans rests, in large measure, with wavering lawmakers within Obama’s own party.

And some of those Democrats are unhappy at the prospect of being pressured by a group that is funded with party money and housed at the Democratic National Committee. They raised concerns at a pre-recess meeting of freshman lawmakers and Organizing for America officials.

So far, the group’s pressure on Democrats has been soft. A television ad featuring Americans with healthcare concerns aired in several states represented by centrist Democratic senators, including Arkansas, North Dakota and Florida.

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In Colorado, the group scheduled a rally outside the Fort Collins office of Rep. Betsy Markey, a centrist Democratic freshman who is undecided on the legislation. The location was subsequently changed without explanation.

In recent days, the network has started looking for ways to help Democrats, many of them freshmen, who face tight races next year -- rewarding those who support Obama’s healthcare agenda or gently pressuring those who might need an extra nudge to back it.

Last week, for example, the network organized a “thank you” rally for a Virginia congressman, Tom Perriello, even though he hasn’t said which way he would vote on healthcare.

But some activists want the network to be more aggressive.

Davies, the North Carolina speech therapist, said she attended a recent organizational meeting but left “without any clear script or anything to do.”

Organizing for America “hasn’t contacted me with a really clear mission,” Davies said. “If they came to my door and said, ‘Here are the 10 things we want you to do,’ then I’d probably do it.”

One complication is that activists are being asked to sell an evolving plan; even Obama hasn’t committed to details.

Silverstone and his wife began canvassing on behalf of healthcare overhaul before the network’s staff arrived in North Carolina. They pressed neighbors to support a government-sponsored “public” insurance plan that Obama says would compete with private insurers, creating pressure for them to keep prices low and quality high.

Now, Silverstone is using petitions provided by Organizing for America that lay out Obama’s broader principles, in addition to the public plan -- and he worries that the message is too vague.

“OFA should try to focus on one detail, like the public option, that people can really identify with,” he said.

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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