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Romney makes a call to a voter and visits with volunteers during a stop at his Tampa, Fla., campaign headquarters.
Brian Blanco/EPA/Newscom
Romney makes a call to a voter and visits with volunteers during a stop at his Tampa, Fla., campaign headquarters.

Into the last laps

Campaign 2012 | Inside the GOP's final push for the White House: As Republicans try to fire up the grassroots, many of those activists find more motivation in opposing a failed president than in supporting the Republican nominee

Issue: "Dead heat," Sept. 22, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. - On a Saturday morning in a quiet strip mall in Clearwater, Fla., a handful of locals in a storefront office hover around a pink coffee maker and a plastic box of chocolate donuts.

Some discuss the Republican National Convention (RNC) that was set to descend on Tampa in two days. Others chat about church meetings and grandchildren as they stir powdered creamer into Styrofoam cups.

Nearby, Robert Arnakis intensely checks his mobile phone. The senior staffer at the Virginia-based Leadership Institute has worked on two presidential campaigns and consulted with officials in a dozen countries. In 2004, his work on the campaign of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., helped topple former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

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Still, as scores of Republican heavy hitters descended on Tampa in late August, Arnakis was here in a storefront office 25 miles away, preparing to address 35 volunteers at folding tables. The reason: Despite the convention glitz, Arnakis believes the key to this fall's election lies in this room.

If that seems overblown, the conservative consultant points to 2008: President Barack Obama's grassroots efforts crushed Republican nominee John McCain. Avoiding a repeat means mobilizing volunteers across the country in settings like these - a local chapter of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC). "When you get in a room of 40 people, it's hard to imagine the impact on a national level," says Arnakis. "But across the country, you see the cumulative effect."

For conservatives hoping to recapture the White House, this year may hinge on the cumulative effect. With both candidates set to spend millions on television, radio, billboards, and mailings, campaign workers and independent groups on both sides are focusing on manpower: phone calling, door knocking, and talking with neighbors.

It's part of a broader strategy that recognizes at least two essentials: turning out enthused voters and winning over undecided ones. That means working hard in swing states and wooing key voter blocs. It also means mobilizing volunteers not only to convince like-minded voters, but to reach out to ones who aren't sure.

It's a delicate balance. But beyond the televised convention speeches, a few days in Tampa offered an inside glimpse into the GOP's final lap toward the White House. That lap includes choosing a central message, and deciding whether to embrace the social conservatives and grassroots activists that could help deliver the election, or stick to an establishment script that may feel safer.

Here in Clearwater, Eric Scharn isn't interested in the Republican establishment. He and his wife, Patty, have volunteered for the GOP in elections since 2000, but this year, Scharn is disgruntled. "It kills me what both parties are doing," he says. "They both stink."

Scharn is particularly discouraged over what he sees as the GOP leadership's distance from social conservatives and other activists, including Tea Party supporters. This year, Scharn and his wife will volunteer for just a handful of candidates, and for efforts by groups like FFPC to promote pro-life and pro-marriage causes.

Like others here, Scharn seems more angered with Obama than excited about the alternative - a common theme at the RNC. When former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed greeted pro-life and pro-marriage supporters at a convention event in Tampa, he began by asking the crowd: "How excited are you about Paul Ryan?"

Indeed, the vice presidential candidate created more buzz than Republican nominee Mitt Romney in some quarters. But the biggest buzz remained opposition to Obama, even in evening speeches by both Ryan and Romney.

John Stemberger, president of the FFPC, said that his group is enjoying an unprecedented amount of volunteers and resources during this cycle, but most of it is centered on stopping the president: "The energy is negative energy."

Perhaps that's enough motivation for some social conservatives and Tea Party activists, but what about undecided voters? Arnakis - one of two consultants leading the morning session in Clearwater for FFPC volunteers - tells the group they must learn how to talk to voters who haven't made up their minds.

Billy Kirkland agrees. Kirkland, who's helping with the volunteer training, is a staffer with Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition - a three-year-old group that reports 500,000 members and aims to register 2 million unregistered conservative voters by this fall.

Other independent groups have similar goals of reaching grassroots voters: Former Sen. Rick Santorum's Patriot Voices reports it will mobilize the former candidate's supporters for the fall elections. Others include Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, chapters of Focus on the Family, and local Tea Party organizations.

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