Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"Clinton, Obama chase next big prize: Washington state"

Seattle Times:
As the Super Tuesday votes were being tallied, Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were setting their sights on the next big prize: Washington.

After lagging behind Obama in getting a campaign up and running here, Clinton on Tuesday sent in a swarm of campaign staff from other states to help prepare for Saturday's precinct caucuses.

Obama's campaign announced Tuesday evening that he will make a campaign appearance Friday in Seattle.

Clinton also is expected to make a stop here. And her top campaign surrogate, former President Bill Clinton, is scheduled to appear Thursday night in Seattle and Friday morning in Tacoma.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain — the biggest winner Tuesday — still has no paid staff in Washington and no plans to come here before the GOP caucuses. Instead, his campaign appears more focused on the state's Feb. 19 primary, where he has a better chance of pulling in independent voters.

Could that open the door in Washington for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had a surprisingly strong showing Tuesday? Or could this be the state where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney revives his sagging campaign?

After dueling to what appears to be a draw in the 24 states that voted Tuesday, Clinton and Obama are digging in for a protracted battle for delegates that could last well into the spring.

"This race is a tie," said state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz. "This will be in play for at least a month, maybe all the way to the convention."

Two other states — Louisiana and Nebraska — are holding Democratic contests on Saturday. But Washington — with its 97 Democratic delegates, including 80 who will be selected through the caucuses and state convention — has nearly twice as much at stake as those two states combined.

State party officials are bracing for what could be an overwhelming turnout. Pelz is predicting Democrats will easily surpass the record 100,000 people who showed up for the caucuses in 2004 — a year in which the race was largely decided by the time it came to Washington.
It appears less is at stake here this weekend on the Republican side.

Washington's Republican Party is selecting only about half of its 40 delegates through the caucus process. There will be more than twice as many Republican delegates up for grabs Saturday in Louisiana and Kansas.

The rest of Washington's GOP delegates will be allocated through the state's Feb. 19 presidential primary — an event the state Democratic Party is ignoring.

McCain's campaign has already said he will not be coming to Washington this week.

For the past few weeks, while most of the attention has gone to the Super Tuesday states, the campaigns have been quietly gearing up in Washington. Most of the campaigns last month began hosting caucus training around the state. Some recently launched aggressive phone-bank and doorbelling operations.

Obama, who has raised nearly twice as much money in Washington as any other candidate, for weeks had the biggest field operation here. A well-organized group of grass-roots Obama supporters has been rounding up volunteers.

The campaign recently brought in paid staff from other states and now has offices in Seattle, Spokane, Everett, Bellingham and Vancouver, and paid staff in Wenatchee and the Tri-Cities.

"They're opening offices faster than Starbucks," Pelz said.

Clinton, meanwhile, had been relying on an all-volunteer effort here. But this week the national campaign sent in 22 paid staffers from Super Tuesday states.

"It's a huge shot in the arm," said Jim Kainber, who had been running Clinton's campaign here. "They know what needs to be done, who to call. ... This is a ground fight. It's about finding people and dragging people to the caucuses."

Having spent seven years as executive director of the state Democratic Party, Kainber probably knows as much as anyone how each precinct ticks. To offset that advantage, Kainber said, the Obama campaign needed to bring in lots of paid staff early.

But conventional wisdom could get trampled if hordes of new voters turn out for Obama, as happened last month in the Iowa caucuses.

On the Republican side, almost anything seems possible. Washington's Republican caucuses have a history of favoring insurgent candidates — most notably in 1988, when they were dominated by supporters of televangelist Pat Robertson.

"There were church buses and vans pulling up at the caucuses," recalled Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman who was campaigning that year for Bob Dole.

Could that happen this year for Huckabee? A former Baptist preacher, he is a favorite among evangelical voters.

But Pastor Joe Fuiten, Huckabee's state chairman, said the campaign has nowhere near as big of a presence here as Robertson had. The cash-strapped campaign has no paid staff in Washington and has instead been relying on the online networking site and other grass-roots efforts.

Fuiten said he thinks Romney, a Mormon, could be this year's Robertson. A wealthy businessman who has pumped millions of dollars of his own money into the campaign, Romney has raised more money here than any other Republican.

"I think you'll find the Mormons will be out in force this weekend," Fuiten said. "And you can win the caucuses with a handful of people."

Toby Nixon, a former state legislator who is helping run Romney's campaign, said he is not aware of any organized get-out-the-vote effort by the church. But he said Mormons make up a large portion of the 20,000 or so voters the campaign has contacted.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who campaigned in Seattle last week, could also make a strong showing Saturday. Paul's passionate anti-war, libertarian message has struck a chord with many young voters here.

Paul, who has five paid campaign organizers in the state, was the top Republican fundraiser here in the final quarter of last year. lists dozens of Paul groups in Washington, and his supporters frequently show up to wave signs at other candidates' events.

McCain, meanwhile, has some of the state's biggest-name Republicans on his side — including Attorney General Rob McKenna and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.

Vance, another McCain supporter, said the GOP caucuses are "not the best atmosphere" for moderate candidates. Still, he figures McCain will hold his own in the caucuses and then do well in the primary.



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10:41 PM  

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