They’re Republican red, and true blue to Obama

Josh Pedaline, right, of Columbus, Ohio trains John Hughes in canvassing for the Barack Obama campaign on Sunday February 24, 2008 at the Delaware County Obama campaign headquarters in Delaware, Ohio.
(Jamie Sabau / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Chatter bounces off the bare walls and checkered linoleum floor as Josh Pedaline and other Barack Obama supporters burn through their call sheets.

A map of Delaware County splays across a tabletop. Another table is laden with cookies, pretzels and other snacks. Volunteers sit elbow to elbow, pecking at cellphones and pitching the Illinois Democrat in advance of Ohio’s March 4 primary. The scene is a typical campaign boiler room.

Except that four of the 13 dialing away are lifelong Republicans, including Pedaline, 28, who reveres Ronald Reagan and twice voted for President Bush.

“I am so sick and tired of the partisanship,” Pedaline says before starting his night shift at Obama’s outpost in this affluent Columbus suburb. “I don’t want to be cheesy and say, ‘He’ll bring us all together.’ But he seems like someone willing to listen to a good idea, even if it comes from a Republican.”

Pedaline and other GOP renegades are part of a striking phenomenon this campaign season: They are “Obamacans,” as the senator calls them, and they are surfacing in surprising numbers. Though some observers question their commitment, they are blurring -- for now, at least -- the red-blue lines that have colored the nation’s politics for the last several years.

“I’m a conservative, but I have gay friends,” Pedaline explains over dinner at a Columbus diner. “I have friends who don’t believe in abortion, but I don’t condemn them for it; I don’t feel like Obama is condemning me for being a Republican.”

Pedaline has some high-profile company. Susan Eisenhower, a GOP business consultant and granddaughter of President Eisenhower, has endorsed the Democratic hopeful. Colin L. Powell, who served in both Bush administrations, has hinted he may do so as well.

Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who quit the Republican Party after losing his 2006 reelection bid, endorsed Obama even though he campaigned for Chafee’s opponent. Mark McKinnon, a strategist for Republican John McCain, says he will continue to back the Arizona senator but will step aside rather than work against Obama if the two meet in the fall election.

McCain also enjoys crossover support, Democrats attracted by his blunt talk and willingness to break with Republicans on campaign finance and global warming. “We know the old Reagan Democrats,” McCain said aboard his campaign charter. “We’ll try to get those on our side as well, Democrats who think that I’m more capable, particularly on national security issues.”

But so far, Obama has shown more success pulling members of the other party to his side.

Republicans made up 6% of voters in Missouri’s Democratic primary, 7% in Virginia’s and 9% in Wisconsin’s. (Most states make it harder to vote in the other party’s contest.) The overwhelming majority cast their ballots for Sen. Obama, according to exit polls.

Johanna Schneider was one of his Virginia supporters. She went door to door for Obama with her 14-year-old son, Chase, convinced that fellow Republicans have lost their way. “I just feel this is a tremendous opportunity to open politics up to a new generation,” said Schneider, a former GOP staffer on Capitol Hill. “And I believe that Barack Obama is a genuine transformational candidate.”

The support has not come unbidden. Throughout his campaign, Obama has been appealing to Republicans even as he battles Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the Democratic nomination. Obama’s first TV ad in Iowa featured a GOP lawmaker from Illinois touting Obama’s ability to work with Republicans.

“Very rarely do you hear me talking about my opponents without giving them some credit for having good intentions and being decent people,” Obama recently told U.S. News & World Report. “There’s nothing uniquely Democratic about a respect for civil liberties. There’s nothing uniquely Democratic about believing in a foreign policy of restraint. . . . A lot of the virtues I talk about are virtues that are deeply embedded in the Republican Party.”

As noble as those words may be, there are tactical benefits to Obama’s outreach. Winning support from Republicans and independents as well as Democrats “shows he’s the candidate best situated to take on McCain in the fall,” Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, asserted. “That is an important distinction in this race.”

Republican support also reinforces Obama’s message as he paints himself as a unity candidate above party labels, capable of ending the Washington sniping. “We’re going to build a working majority,” he said the night he swept primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. “Not by turning people off, but by bringing them in.”

Those words resonate with Lennie Rhoades, 57, who cast his first presidential ballot for Richard Nixon and has voted Republican in every presidential race since. “It seems like Washington has come to a standstill the last eight years,” said Rhoades, in between calls at the Obama office in a brick storefront below Delaware County’s Democratic headquarters. “I think Obama can get beyond that.”

Many are skeptical that Republicans will stick with Obama until November. They point out that many of his proposals -- including a timetable for ending the war in Iraq, repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, expanding the government’s role in healthcare and supporting gay rights and gun control -- cut too much against GOP orthodoxy.

“Even in this day and age, partisanship carries a lot of weight,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist whose polling last summer picked up early signs of Obama’s Republican appeal.

But for Pedaline, who spent months researching candidates before embracing Obama, there is no going back. Even though he questions the feasibility of Obama’s plan to withdraw from Iraq and figures government would grow under the Democrat’s administration, his support “is not a policy decision.”

“It’s a personality decision,” Pedaline says. “It’s an inspirational decision.”

Pedaline, a loan officer at a Columbus mortgage company, grew up in rural Ohio and still carries the heft of his high school football days. His father, a salesman, and his mother, who ran a pizza shop, were largely apolitical. But Pedaline was bothered when the Democratic congressman from nearby Youngstown, James A. Traficant Jr., went to prison on corruption charges. “I had a bad taste in my mouth about Democrats from the beginning,” he says over a chicken dinner.

During his college years in Columbus, the political talk was all about President Clinton and impeachment. That compounded Pedaline’s contempt for Democrats in general, and the Clintons in particular. “Disingenuous,” he says of the former first lady. He will vote for McCain if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

Like many, he discovered Obama through the candidate’s soaring address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His words put “chills on the back of my neck,” Pedaline says, especially when he talked about America’s shared values. He followed Obama on the Washington talk-show circuit and went to YouTube to download his February 2007 speech announcing his presidential candidacy.

By then, Pedaline had soured on Bush and the “conservative ideologues” he blamed for Washington’s gridlock, especially when it came to Social Security, an issue important to his parents.

He wrote a long MySpace missive calling for a candidate “who is flexible, creative, intelligent and willing to compromise.” After Obama entered the race, Pedaline posted his statement on a campaign message board with an addendum: “My biggest hope is that his refreshing outlook and attitude will rub off on his opponents both Republican and Democrat alike. . . . “

Soon, Pedaline heard from John Martin, a New York law student and co-founder of Republicans for Obama, a loosely knit grass-roots organization, who asked him to head the Ohio chapter. (There are 22 across the country.) Pedaline agreed, even though he was still weighing support for McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Obama’s two autobiographies sold Pedaline. After reading them last summer, he was convinced Obama possessed both the desire and a singular capacity to unite Americans. “Maybe it’s just a fairy tale,” Pedaline says, “but maybe we can at least get back to a point where people can listen and respect each other.”

He committed to the Obama campaign six nights a week through the March 4 primary and hopes to volunteer in the fall, when Ohio will be a top target of both parties. His day job, which requires the occasional cold call, helps in phone canvassing. Two hours into his boiler-room shift, Pedaline sounds as relentlessly cheery -- “Hi, this is Josh, from Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign!” -- as he did starting out.

Seated nearby is Royal Morse, 56, a small-business owner and another lifelong Republican. He too hungers for more civility and productivity in Washington. “I’ve never been as passionate about any presidential candidate in my 35 years of voting,” Morse says during a break. “Never.”

The two dial, chat, dial, chat, each in his own conversation until Morse gets some grief from the other end of the line. He glances at Pedaline. “Another one of those stuffy Republicans,” he says. The two smile, and keep dialing.

Times staff writers Johanna Neuman and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.