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WAUWATOSA, Wis. — The most sophisticated, most expensive presidential contest in history may be decided by the simplest, most old-fashioned of campaign techniques, by people like David Karst and Richard Eaton.
It's a balmy evening, and people in this Milwaukee suburb are working in their yards or sitting down to dinner. Karst and Eaton, toting clipboards and Bush-Cheney '04 brochures, are walking through a middle-class neighborhood doing what's known in the campaign business as "doors."
They don't knock on every door. Democrats, independents and people who aren't registered to vote don't interest them. Their lists direct them to the homes of loyal Republicans, lapsed Republicans, occasional Republicans and people who have entered their names on the campaign's Web site.
Their mission is being conducted by both campaigns every night in hundreds of key precincts in dozens of key counties in a handful of key states: Find supporters and do everything possible to make sure they vote. In a race this close and polarized, both sides believe ensuring that their core backers vote could make the difference.
This is the most basic kind of campaigning. It is integral to the Bush campaign's blueprint for collecting the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. Wisconsin, which Democrat Al Gore won by 5,708 votes in 2000, was targeted by Republicans immediately after that election. Never has a Republican presidential campaign invested in Wisconsin the way President Bush's has.
It was one of the first states to get paid staffers: two in January, a total of six in February, nine now. Starting in March, the goal was to contact 5,708 voters each week. About 800,000 prospective voters have already received mail, phone calls or knocks on their doors from the Bush campaign, and 1.1 million applications for absentee ballots have been mailed.
"It's going back to basics: Get somebody who knows them to persuade them," says Mark Graul, executive director of Bush's campaign in Wisconsin. In this state, the renewed emphasis on person-to-person contact, he says, is "a fundamental shift in campaigning" — away from depending on TV ads and impersonal phone banks and toward the gentle persuasion that a neighbor can wield. It seems to be having an effect: Bush leads Sen. John Kerry in Wisconsin polls.
Outside groups helping out
Wisconsin, like other states where the race is close, has been inundated with TV ads, mail, automated phone calls and mass e-mailings. In such a saturated environment, says Don Green, a Yale University political scientist, "the only way to grab someone's attention is to look them in the eye."
"We're relying on volunteers in a way that we haven't in years," says Karen Hicks, who directs field operations for the Democratic National Committee.
Her Republican counterpart is Blaise Hazelwood, engineer of the national "72-hour plan" that two years ago flooded key precincts with volunteers and helped GOP candidates win several close races for Senate and governor.
Outside groups are helping both parties in target states, but they rely more on paid staffers. America Coming Together, one of the best-funded pro-Democrat groups, is paying 900 full-time organizers and 2,000 canvassers in 15 key states. Republicans are being helped by groups such as Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Christian Coalition.
Wisconsin has canvassers from those groups, Kerry's campaign, the AFL-CIO and the League of Conservation Voters. But the Bush campaign has been at it longer and harder. In November 2000, before the Florida recount ended, then-governor Tommy Thompson and state GOP leaders met in Madison to figure out what went wrong for them. Planning began in March 2003. Bush's campaign had a Wisconsin steering committee by that summer, one of the earliest put in place by Bush's national strategists. By January, before Kerry's presidential quest began in the New Hampshire primary, the Bush team was tracking volunteers, naming ward captains and phoning voters. By Feb. 1, before Kerry won Wisconsin's primary, there were Bush chairmen in all 72 counties.
BADGER STATE FACTS
Wisconsin hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984, but both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are targeting it this year. A profile of the Badger State:
Population: 5.3 million
Electoral College votes: 10 of 270 needed to win the presidency
Margin of Democrat Al Gore's victory in 2000: 5,708 votes
Polling: Bush 52%, Kerry 44% in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll of 631 likely voters in Wisconsin taken Sept. 9-12; margin of error, +/-5 percentage points
Unemployment rate: 4.8% in August; U.S. rate was 5.4%
The Kerry campaign has 1,641 ward leaders and 23 offices in Wisconsin, spokesman Bill Burton says. Help comes from more than 100 paid staffers, including some paid by the state party, Democratic National Committee and other campaigns.
Simple math explains why Wisconsin is a target. It has 10 Electoral College votes. Neighboring Minnesota has 10. Both states are in better economic shape than states such as Ohio and Michigan, which have lost more manufacturing jobs. If Bush loses Michigan (17 electoral votes) or Ohio (20 electoral votes), he can compensate by winning Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Wisconsin method also is operating in Minnesota, where polls show the race is tied.
The prototype for this year's personal-touch campaigning was West Virginia in 2000. It seemed like a gamble when Bush targeted it. In 70 years, the state had voted only three times for a Republican presidential candidate. But Bush strategists ignored history and invested time and money there. Bush won 52%-46%.
The Bush organization says there are 36,582 volunteers like Karst and Eaton in Wisconsin, although Kerry campaign officials say the number is inflated. Karst, 42, who owns a staffing agency, has done this only a couple evenings. He's wearing a dress shirt and a tie. Eaton, 56, drives a truck for Roadway Express. He's a veteran activist. He's wearing jeans, a T-shirt and his Teamsters Local 200 cap.
They are among eight volunteers who show up at the GOP campaign headquarters at 5:15 p.m. After a few minutes of training — make it quick, enter a code after each stop — volunteers split into four teams and head out. "I believe in President Bush and the way he's leading the war on terrorism," Karst says. "I want my grandchildren to live in a safe world," Eaton says.
They walk quickly between their target addresses, typically three or four houses on a block. Brochures are tucked into mailboxes or flowerpots at homes where no one comes to the door. One man tells them curtly that they're in the wrong neighborhood. Two women close their doors politely after Karst and Eaton identify themselves as "volunteers for President Bush."
Dick Lipscomb, a 74-year-old retiree, answers his door. "All I want is yard signs. I want several of them," he says. Karst promises to deliver them personally and makes a note. Lipscomb's wife, Donna, 69, joins him on the front stoop. Dick wants to chat, but Karst and Eaton have more doors to knock on. They leave an application for an absentee ballot for the Lipscombs' son.
A couple blocks away, John Wisniewski, a 37-year-old engineer, answers his door. He accepts a brochure but says he's not going to vote for Bush. "Too many things domestically are not being addressed," he says. Eaton and Karst debate him about the Iraq war and the local economy. Eaton says his company is hiring 25 people. Wisniewski doesn't appear to be swayed. "Maybe he'll think about it," Eaton says with a shrug.
Taking nothing for granted
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's campaign, sees opportunity in Milwaukee suburbs such as this one and in small towns in the southwest part of the state. "We looked at the changing nature of Wisconsin," he says. Increasingly, people in those growing areas care about security and schools and are churchgoers. That makes them "more similar to Southern and border states like Tennessee and Kentucky, which are now more reliably Republican," Dowd says.
Grant County, a dairy farming area in southwest Wisconsin, is one of the places Bush's team thought would vote for him in 2000. The campaign neglected the area and paid a price: Gore won by 451 votes out of 21,956 cast. This year, both candidates have visited.
So far, 6,000 Grant County voters have been contacted by Bush volunteers. Demand for yard signs is up tenfold from 2000, says Jeff Curry, chairman of the county GOP. A dozen volunteers show up for weekly phone-bank sessions. Travis Tranel, 18, a freshman at nearby Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, is among them. He can rack up 60 calls in an hour. Working for Bush "is just a passion for me," he says.
Curry, 25, who works full time for no pay, says 25 new party members have been recruited this year. Fifteen or so come to weekly meetings. Most volunteer to help find Bush votes. "The voters are there," Curry says. "You just have to motivate them."
Contributing: Kathy Kiely in Washington