Obama’s local campaign hits high gear

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

With the deadline to register to vote in November’s election exactly two weeks away, Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is orchestrating a widespread get-out-the-vote effort in the Aspen area.

The overwhelmingly Democratic-voting Pitkin County — where Democratic candidate John Kerry received more than twice as many votes as President George W. Bush in 2004 — is being targeted as a voting sector that can put Obama over the top for Colorado’s nine electoral votes. Because any vote from this area is most likely a vote for Obama, his local boosters are focused primarily on registering as many locals as they can.

“One of the fallacies about Pitkin County is that people don’t need to go vote for a Democrat because everybody is voting for them anyway,” said Blanca O’Leary, co-chair of the county’s Democratic party. “What we need to do is make sure Pitkin County over-performs.”

Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, an Obama supporter, cited the 2006 election of state Sen. Gail Schwartz as proof that this supercharged Pitkin County strategy works. In that contest, Schwartz pulled 82 percent of the Pitkin County vote after a similar local voter registration push. Ireland said the Pitkin County vote overrode more conservative sections of the district and propelled Schwartz’s narrow victory over Republican incumbent Lewis Entz.

“We totally outweighed Delta County,” Ireland said.

Saturday morning, O’Leary and a team of canvassers met at Zélé Café and set out — armed with voter registration forms and Obama campaign literature — to knock on doors and get people on the voting rolls.

These local Obama volunteers have been hitting the streets twice every week, on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, usually with a team of eight to a dozen. A smaller squad in Basalt does the same.

This weekend, Colorado Obama volunteers were matched up in a contest with those in Virginia in which the canvasser from those two states who knocks on the most doors gets to meet the candidate himself. Earlier this summer Sydney Hastings, a Glenwood Springs volunteer, won a similar contest by knocking on 417 doors. She and her son were rewarded with a face-to-face Obama meeting at his rally in Grand Junction last Monday.

That visit to the Western Slope — the first to Grand Junction by a Democratic candidate since Harry Truman in 1948 — marked the beginning of an Obama blitzkrieg on the region that is not likely to slow down before Election Day. Last week also saw Obama’s top adviser on veterans’ issues holding a forum in Grand Junction, Sen. Ken Salazar telling Colorado reporters in a conference call that Obama “as president will stand up for rural Colorado,” and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson touring Colorado addressing concerns of Latino voters and registering people to vote.

The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org held a party for Obama Sunday at Aspen Highlands where supporters were asked to bring their cell phones and chargers to call and ask citizens to volunteer for Obama.

Thursday night in Aspen, volunteers made an estimated 1,200 phone calls to local voters. They will repeat those phone banks twice a week until Election Day.

And local Obama supporters are taking over Paepcke Park on Oct. 19 to push a less traditional campaign strategy: encouraging early voting. Colorado is one of 36 states allowing early voting this year, and it begins on Oct. 20, the day after the Democrats hold a picnic in the park with bands and food, where they intend to convince people to vote before Nov. 4.

They are worried that this year’s extra-long ballot in Pitkin County will cause extra-long lines at voting booths that might turn some people away on Election Day. Between local, state and national items, the ballot here is expected to have more than 30 questions and contests for voters to decide.

Pitkin County’s non-partisan Clerk and Recorder, Janice Vos Caudill, has expressed similar worries about long lines for Election Day voters due to the massive ballot. She is encouraging voters to take advantage of the early-voting opportunity, which allows them to take time to fill out the ballot at home and mail it in, or to do so in her Aspen office between Oct. 20 and Nov. 4.

Along with the volunteers, Obama has one paid staffer overseeing campaign efforts in the Roaring Fork Valley, and opened a campaign office in Glenwood Springs earlier this month. One of 32 Obama offices now open in Colorado, the Glenwood hub is part of a national on-the-ground strategy that seeks to organize volunteers everywhere for the campaign, including some traditional Republican strongholds. A recent count estimated that Obama had more than 330 field offices in the U.S., while his Republican opponent, John McCain, had just over 100.

Obama’s 50-state web of local offices is fueled by what is believed to be the largest field operation in American political history. And even veteran politicos are taken aback by the magnitude of his standing volunteer army.

“This is the best organized campaign I’ve seen,” said O’Leary, the county Democratic co-chair. “And I’ve been doing this forever.”

andrew@aspendailynews.com