Dave Filipi, a 48-year-old family doctor, made his way to the back room of McKenna's Blues Bar near the University of Nebraska's Omaha campus. Nervously smoothing his suit, he lingered in the doorway. "To be honest, I'm a Republican," Filipi sheepishly said as two dozen curious faces swung around toward him.
"Trust me, you're not the only one here," Solomon Kleinsmith, the head of the group Omaha for Obama and himself a lifelong Republican, replied with a chuckle. "Come, sit down."
Political organizing for Democrats in red states like Nebraska can often feel a bit like leading AA meetings. But that hasn't deterred more than 300 Nebraskans from forming a dozen groups for Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and they aren't the only ones. On Monday, the Obama campaign announced that over 300 Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans had decided to cross party lines to support Obama. At Obama events in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia and Georgia, a good 20% of audiences routinely raise their hands when emcees ask for Republicans in the crowd. A "Republicans for Obama" website has 11 state chapters with 146 members. An August University of Iowa even found Obama running third in the state among Republican candidates, behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani but ahead of both Fred Thompson and John McCain. And a national Gallup poll this month also found that nearly as many Republicans like Obama — 39% — than the 43% that dislike him, compared with the 78% of Republicans who held an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton.
It seems a lot of Republicans took to heart Obama's statement in his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America." And with polls showing Obama still trailing Clinton and supporters urging him to become more aggressive in attacking the front-runner, his non-partisan appeal could be a useful rallying cry as Iowa and New Hampshire fast approach. Already, the campaign uses his electability as a defense when things don't go their way. Last Wednesday, when the former First Lady won the endorsement of the powerful Association of Federal, State and Municipal Employees Union — which has more than 30,000 members in Iowa — Obama campaign manager David Plouffe responded with this: "It is a bit surprising that the union probably most concerned with state and local election results would support the candidate with the likeliest least appeal in red states. When Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, he will not only win the presidency but his appeal to Republicans and Independents will lift down-ballot candidates all across the country."
Even some former Bush supporters and advisers are Obama converts. Three former major fund-raisers for the President have given money to Obama. One of them, James Canning, a Chicago financier, is openly supporting Obama after he grew tired of what he calls the G.O.P.'s "Neanderthal positions on things like stem cell research and global warming." Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media consultant during both of his presidential campaigns, has warned his clients — including Senator John McCain — that if Obama wins the Democratic nomination McKinnon won't work against him in the general election. And Matthew Dowd, Bush's former top political strategist, told the New York Times that the only candidate that appeals to him this cycle in either party is Obama.
"I don't think Oklahoma has seen this kind of enthusiasm for a Democrat since Bobby Kennedy," marveled Lisa Pryor, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, who is not endorsing a candidate, after an Obama rally in Oklahoma City in March that drew more than 1,000 people — each of whom paid $25 to get in, and handed over their contact information. "He could be the first Democrat to win Oklahoma since LBJ."
The demand for Obama in conservative states is a testament to his rock star status, a term he loathes for its implication that he's all style and no substance. But it may be the very fact that many voters don't yet know that much about the specifics of his politics that is sustaining his level of cross-party support. "I'm not seeing any pretty clear matches for me in the Republican crop," said Filipi, a lifelong Republican who found Omaha for Obama on the Internet. "The last few years I've really had to settle on who I've voted for. I haven't been inspired. I'm not sure Obama's that person either but he's the closest I've come to getting inspired in years."
In fact, Obama's voting record is the most liberal of any candidate, according to a National Journal analysis. Obama's score of 84.3% in the Journal's ratings formula tops even that of Representative Dennis Kucinich, who was considered the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate in 2004.
Republicans and Independents are a vital demographic for Obama, who needs to draw in new voters in order to compete with Clinton and Edwards in Iowa, the all-important first test of presidential politics. The three are essentially tied in polls in Iowa, where anyone, regardless of party identification, can show up and caucus provided they sign a (non-binding) letter saying they intend to change their registration. And while 76% of Edwards supporters caucused in 2004, only 55% of Obama's supporters took the time four years ago, according to another University of Iowa poll out this week. "For Obama, getting people who are less likely to caucus out the door in January will be critical," said David Redlawsk, the poll's director and an associate professor of political science.
And just in case Iowa Republicans and Independents aren't yet sold on Obama, Kleinsmith and his group of Omaha for Obama are working across the border in Iowa to convince them. "My big fear is: if he doesn't win Iowa that's it for him," Kleinsmith told his group. As well, he would surely argue, as it would be for the Democrats' already slim chances in a state like Nebraska.