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Feet on the ground

"Feet on the ground" Continued...

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

When it comes to grassroots initiative, Caldwell says St. John is a prime example. The vice chairman of the Republican Party in York County, S.C., St. John has been a Huckabee supporter for nearly a year. "We [party officials] don't usually make endorsements," says St. John. "But when you get down to the president, it's different."

St. John says he thinks Huckabee could work across the aisle with Democrats in Washington to get more things done. "We've had so many people who have been there for so long, and who aren't doing their jobs," he says. "We've got to make a change."

To that end, St. John has organized grassroots campaign efforts in four South Carolina counties, drawing on years of political experience in the region. At the Tuesday evening meeting for Huckabee volunteers in his home, St. John gives a primer on local politics: He knows which counties they should target, which neighborhoods they should canvass, and which rural mailboxes they should blitz with campaign literature.

St. John spends hours drawing walking maps for canvassing, securing free office space for phone banks, organizing sign-waving rallies at busy intersections, and delivering campaign literature to volunteers in distant counties.

It's the kind of local expertise without which the campaign would be lost, says Caldwell. "People like him know the ins and outs of South Carolina politics," he tells WORLD. "And we've got people like him all over the state."

The volunteer efforts are especially important to a campaign that doesn't have the formal organization and fundraising power of other campaigns. When St. John mentions that a rival campaign has removed some Huckabee signs from yards, Caldwell quips: "If they want to get in a sign war with me they've picked the wrong guy-because I don't have enough signs."

St. John says he's not worried about better-financed campaigns: "You know what makes this campaign different? The other ones have the money. This one has the workers."

Other candidates have plenty of workers as well, but no other Democrat is leveraging grassroots efforts in South Carolina as aggressively as Obama. The campaign has seven offices in the state and claims at least 6,000 volunteers. (Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign operates four offices in South Carolina, while Democrat John Edwards has two.)

Obama's South Carolina campaign has set up scores of house meetings and recruited "church captains" from local congregations to serve as liaisons. Obama has aggressively plugged into another powerful social outlet in the state as well: barber shops. The campaign boasts a network of 900 "B&B's"-barber shops and beauty parlors. The state's Democratic Party chairwoman, Carol Khare Fowler, isn't endorsing a candidate during the primaries, but she did offer this assessment to a local newspaper: "The Obama campaign is doing a more extensive grassroots effort than has ever been done in South Carolina before."

Whether Obama and Huckabee will win over enough voters in South Carolina and beyond remains questionable. Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard told WORLD it would be unwise to count out any major candidate, and he says the primary season could stretch well beyond "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, especially if a handful of candidates split supporters and no clear winner quickly emerges.

In South Carolina, Clinton maintains a formidable organization and benefits from her husband's popularity with Democratic voters. Woodard says Republican hopeful Mitt Romney also has strong operations in the state and could reclaim Huckabee's lead. If voters suddenly want the security of a better-known candidate, they could shift to Sen. John McCain.

Republican candidates facing a steeper hill in South Carolina include Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. Woodard says Thompson hasn't connected with voters in the state as expected. Meanwhile, Giuliani has turned his focus elsewhere: Florida (with a Jan. 29 primary) and the 22 states with primaries on Feb. 5.

Giuliani is pursuing a risky strategy that shelves conventional wisdom about gaining momentum in early primary states. Instead, the former mayor hopes to overcome his opponents on Feb. 5 by snatching the most delegates out of the 1,113 up for grabs that day.

It's a strategy Giuliani likens to baseball. "A baseball game, you've got nine innings," he recently said. "And whoever gets the most runs at the end of nine innings wins." Woodard says that strategy could work, but it raises one major question: "Can he last that long?"

Back in South Carolina, Caldwell is so convinced that Huckabee will last, he's already making plans for the Florida primary: "Come Jan. 20, I guess I'll need to find an overpass in Florida to park my truck."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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