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Obama’s campaign charging ahead

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau –

FAIRFAX, Va. — As President Barack Obama this week tore into another campaign-ready speech on gas prices in Maryland, the real work of his re-election campaign was happening across the state line, far from the spotlight.

In a strip mall in Fairfax, Va., a group of suburban women gathered in an Obama campaign office to work the phones, trying to lure more volunteers, update voter information and just make contact. One remarkable note in the busy scene came from a sign on the office wall.

“Days to go: 225.”

Eight months from Election Day, while Republican presidential contenders still battle in a protracted fight for their party’s nomination, the Obama campaign is up and running — determined to make the most of its head start by reactivating the much-vaunted organization that prevailed in 2008.

The campaign has spent months and tens of millions of dollars building an on-the-ground and cyberspace organization earlier and larger than any previous presidential campaign. By January it already had a payroll to rival a professional baseball team, albeit a small-market one. The Obama effort has staff in every state. Its tentacles, which reach into red territory such as Wyoming, are all over the key battlegrounds. It has 15 field offices in Florida and 10 each in Ohio and Pennsylvania. A cavernous Chicago headquarters — 50,000 square feet in a high-rise overlooking the city skyline — is the hub.

In Virginia, a swing state that both sides believe could be key to the election, the Fairfax office is one of five statewide. Two more offices are slated to open this week. The campaign already has held 7,500 events in the state since April, including house parties and phone banks, like the “Women for Obama” event Thursday night. It has reached out to more than 450,000 Virginia voters on phones and at doors, according to the campaign.

All of the reinforcements in the world will make little difference if voters reject the candidate, of course. Obama remains especially vulnerable to downward shifts in the economy and rising gas prices, the latter of which seems to already have been a drag on his approval ratings.

Furthermore, some have wondered whether the Obama campaign is going too big — burning through precious dollars at a rate it can’t sustain at a time when most voters are hardly paying attention. Karl Rove, political guru under President George W. Bush, argued this week in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Obama was spending too much, too quickly.

The Obama campaign has spent at least $1.2 million on its digital operations, which shoot out regular emails to supporters, organize “Truth Squad” teams that spread campaign talking points, and collect and update information about supporters.

To engage that digital network, there have been contests to win a dinner with the president, a competition to best Obama in the NCAA bracket, and the much-hyped release of a “documentary” film, directed by Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim and narrated by Tom Hanks.

The release of the 17-minute video — streaming online — was celebrated with 300 watch parties around the country, the campaign said, including one following the phone-banking in Fairfax.

About 20 women sat in folding chairs in the back of the office, listening to Hanks’ voice calmly recount the challenges of the last four years. The video highlights key decision points — the auto industry bailout, the health care overhaul, killing Osama bin Laden, withdrawing troops from Iraq — that the campaign believes are central to making the case for Obama’s re-election. It avoids others less likely to fire up Democratic volunteers, never mentioning Afghanistan, for example, or the failed effort last summer to negotiate with Republican leaders to reach a “grand bargain” on the federal deficit.

Obama has held more than 100 fundraisers and raised more than $141 million for his campaign.

That pays the salaries of four staff organizers in Fairfax, which has phone banks daily. (“Call time is sacred,” another sign read. “5 to 9.”) At this point, the outreach is largely focused on contacting past supporters or others who have expressed interest in getting involved through the website.

The volunteers also focus on updating supporters’ personal information — new addresses and phone numbers. Given the economic upheaval, Fairfax has seen a lot of mobility, said super-volunteer Sue Langley.

“I talked to a woman who was about to lose her house and was worried about her credit cards and her son starting college. There are so many uncontrollable events that happen,” said Langley, a 63-year-old government economist from Vienna, Va. “We’re going to have to work very hard against all these things. In my opinion, it’s going to be a very close campaign.”

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