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.
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.
Still, the question remains: Are the grassroots interested enough? Dyan and Gery Cuprisin aren't so sure. The couple here at the Clearwater event is volunteering for the first time because of the apathy they see among friends and neighbors. "They're more involved in the latest shows on TV than what's happening in the country," says Dyan.
When their church - a non-denominational congregation of several thousand members - invited area churches to an informational forum on issues and candidates earlier this year, the couple says less than 50 people showed up.
Arnakis tells the group they should emphasize the importance of social issues in the upcoming election, but also learn how to talk to undecided voters about complex topics like Medicare and tax reform: "How did Jesus communicate?" he asks the group. "In stories and examples. He took hard concepts and broke them down."
That's a lesson the Romney camp should absorb. In a series of convention speeches in Tampa, a litany of Republican politicians spoke of the problems created by Obama. Fewer spoke of concrete solutions. In conversations with voters outside the convention hall, many spoke of "taking the country back" or stopping Obama, but fewer spoke of how to accomplish those goals.
Back in Clearwater, Kirkland says that's a problem when it comes to undecided voters. "An undecided voter doesn't care about a party message," he told the volunteers. "You have to talk to them about their issues."
For social conservatives, some of their issues didn't get heavy play during major convention speeches. Though Rick Santorum emphasized the importance of pro-life causes, and the GOP platform was pointedly pro-life, Romney devoted one line of a 37-minute speech to social issues: "As president, I'll respect the sanctity of life. I'll honor the institution of marriage."
Perhaps that was a political calculation after Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., caused an uproar by using the term "legitimate rape" when discussing abortion a week earlier. (An interviewer had asked Akin whether abortion should be legal in the cases of rape.)
By the middle of the RNC, the Obama campaign - which hadn't emphasized its pro-abortion stance - seized the controversy. A television ad running on large screens in the Tampa convention center warned that Romney favors overturning Roe v. Wade, and featured a woman saying: "It's a scary time to be a woman."
Tony Perkins - president of the Family Research Council and a Louisiana delegate at the convention - said the GOP shouldn't avoid the subject of abortion: "I think Republicans do themselves a disservice when they run from the fact that they are the party that protects life."
Indeed, with polls showing that pro-life sentiment is increasing in America, Perkins says: "It's something to run to - not from."
Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, says social conservatives face pushback from the "financial elites" of the GOP who would like to avoid discussing abortion and marriage. "But the worst possible thing that the party can do is get in the crouching position and put their hands over their head," he said. Instead, Bauer says the party should emphasize that Democrats favor abortion in all circumstances: "The extremists on abortion are in the other party."
Extremism was on display a day later at a pro-life reception near the Tampa arena. While pro-life supporters gathered in a second-story reception area over a busy street, protesters from the group Code Pink gathered on the corner in full view of the window. They wore lewd costumes depicting female anatomy, and carried lewd signs. Upstairs, Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, dismissed the Democratic idea that the GOP is engaged in a war on women: "It's actually a war for women." Nance says it's a war rooted in compassion for unborn children and the women who carry them: "If you let the other side define you, you lose."
Social conservatives weren't the only grassroots group calling for a louder voice. A heated controversy over Republican Party rules erupted during the first day of the convention.
A controversial proposal by Ben Ginsberg - lead attorney for the Romney campaign - would have allowed presidential nominees under some conditions to choose or replace delegates before conventions. (Delegates are typically elected by state and local parties.)
Grassroots activists saw the move as an attempt to squelch the influence of candidates like Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who enjoyed widespread grassroots support during his presidential campaign.
That proposal didn't survive, but another one did: The GOP can now change party rules between conventions, instead of waiting for fuller debates on a convention floor.
Morton Blackwell - a Romney supporter and social conservative on the rules committee - was appalled: "It's the worst set of changes I've ever seen." The changes not only diminish the influence of those with less power than the GOP leaders, they're also counterproductive to winning supporters of candidates like Paul, he says: "We should be doing everything in our power to embrace those who lost the nomination. Not grind our heel in their face."
At least two Texas delegates said they wouldn't vote for Romney after the changes. Outside the convention center, Stephen Lee and Brad McCally sported the crisp blue shirts and white Stetsons of their delegation. Lee's cowboy hat also bore a sticker: "Ron Paul 2012." Both men were considering supporting the GOP by voting for Romney this fall, but Lee said: "The Republican Party just shot themselves in the foot."
It wasn't just Paul supporters upset over the changes. Julie McCarty - a Santorum supporter and a Texas delegate - said the changes squelch grassroots voices like Tea Party activists. "Now we're back at square one, trying to get the enthusiasm back up so we can go back out and campaign for Mitt Romney," she says. That's a problem the candidate could face among voters he'll need in a tight election. "I'll vote for him," says McCarty. "But I don't know how hard I'll campaign for him."