Brian White on the phone at the Obama regional headquarters in Rock Hill, S.C.

Feet on the ground

Campaign 2008 | How far can volunteer efforts take a presidential campaign? Obama and Huckabee, with impressive grassroots strength in South Carolina, plan to find out this month

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Brian White didn't expect to be part of a presidential campaign. The telecommunications salesman from North Carolina got involved in South Carolina politics a few months ago when he realized the state's importance in the primary calendar: "I had a 'duh' moment."

That "duh" moment led White to trek to Rock Hill, S.C., once a week to make phone calls and knock on doors for the Barack Obama campaign. On a cold, misty Saturday morning before Christmas, White donned a wool hat in the parking lot of the York County Public Library before heading out to canvass nearby neighborhoods.

At the first house on his list in a poor section of town, White turned with a sheepish smile. "I hate doing this," he said. When a man answered the door, White gave him campaign literature and reminded him to vote in the primary. The man silently nodded and closed the door.

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As a light rain began to fall, White explained that he doesn't relish knocking on strangers' doors, but he is consuming his free time doing it because, when it comes to Obama, "I've never been this excited about a candidate."

For White, the enthusiasm is particularly notable: He is a registered Republican. When it comes to hot-button issues, White says he "doesn't think there is a way out of Iraq." (Obama supports a quick withdrawal.) He thinks the Republican candidates' health-care plans are "more realistic." (Obama supports universal health care.)

But when White surveyed Republican candidates, he said, "there just wasn't one that appealed to me." He likes Obama's charisma and says he thinks he could foster unity in a divided political landscape.

For both Republicans and Democrats, South Carolina looms large on the primary calendar. (Democrats hold their state primary on Jan. 26.) The first-in-the-South contests traditionally serve as a bellwether for how candidates might fare elsewhere in the region. A win in the state can also provide important momentum in the run up to "Super Tuesday"-the Feb. 5 mega-batch of primaries in more than 20 states.

The South Carolina primaries hold particular importance for each party as well: For Democratic candidates, the contest is an early indication of their strength among minority voters: Nearly half of the Democratic voters in the state's 2004 primary were black.

For Republicans, the primary bears historic weight: No Republican candidate since 1980 has won the party's presidential nomination without winning the primary in South Carolina.

With just weeks before the South Carolina contests, the campaigns of Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee upset polls and passed frontrunners in a state both seemed likely to lose only a couple of months before.

The pair's recent success is rooted in different factors, but a common thread runs through both campaigns: deep dependence on grassroots efforts. Presidential candidates may be raising more money and running more sophisticated ad campaigns than ever before, but Obama and Huckabee are out to prove that there may be no substitute for old-fashioned pavement pounding.

Ask Chris Caldwell where he bases operations for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's campaign in South Carolina, and the state field director answers: "Did you see that big, red pickup truck outside?"

Caldwell is joking, but just barely. While other campaigns have multiple regional field offices and a slew of paid staffers in South Carolina, for months Huckabee's official campaign in the state-with its three full-time workers-could be boiled down to a slogan: three guys and a pickup truck.

On a recent Tuesday night in Fort Mill, S.C., Caldwell stood around the marble island in the kitchen of a Huckabee volunteer, sipping sweet tea and talking about running Huckabee's campaign operations in the state with a Jan. 19 Republican primary.

Caldwell grows serious when he talks to Huckabee supporters packed into volunteer Joe St. John's living room: "It really is the golden goose of it all." If South Carolina is a golden goose, the variety of campaign strategies in the state this primary season has proved that there's more than one way to catch that bird.

When he's not driving around in his red truck, Caldwell is sharing office space with two other paid staffers in a tiny office in Columbia, S.C. With only three full-time workers on Huckabee's South Carolina campaign, Caldwell says his job description includes "head cook and bottle washer."

The Huckabee campaign is sending about a dozen additional paid staffers to South Carolina after the Iowa caucuses, but Caldwell acknowledges the campaign relies on the initiative of volunteers to undergird the small operation: "Our entire campaign is a grassroots campaign."


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