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Feet on the ground

How far can volunteer efforts take a presidential campaign?

Feet on the ground

(Brian White on the phone at the Obama regional headquarters in Rock Hill, S.C.)

Brian White didn't expect to be part of a presidential campaign. The telecommunications salesman from North Carolina got involved in South Carolina politics a few months ago when he realized the state's importance in the primary calendar: "I had a 'duh' moment."

That "duh" moment led White to trek to Rock Hill, S.C., once a week to make phone calls and knock on doors for the Barack Obama campaign. On a cold, misty Saturday morning before Christmas, White donned a wool hat in the parking lot of the York County Public Library before heading out to canvass nearby neighborhoods.

At the first house on his list in a poor section of town, White turned with a sheepish smile. "I hate doing this," he said. When a man answered the door, White gave him campaign literature and reminded him to vote in the primary. The man silently nodded and closed the door.

As a light rain began to fall, White explained that he doesn't relish knocking on strangers' doors, but he is consuming his free time doing it because, when it comes to Obama, "I've never been this excited about a candidate."

For White, the enthusiasm is particularly notable: He is a registered Republican. When it comes to hot-button issues, White says he "doesn't think there is a way out of Iraq." (Obama supports a quick withdrawal.) He thinks the Republican candidates' health-care plans are "more realistic." (Obama supports universal health care.)

But when White surveyed Republican candidates, he said, "there just wasn't one that appealed to me." He likes Obama's charisma and says he thinks he could foster unity in a divided political landscape.

For both Republicans and Democrats, South Carolina looms large on the primary calendar. (Democrats hold their state primary on Jan. 26.) The first-in-the-South contests traditionally serve as a bellwether for how candidates might fare elsewhere in the region. A win in the state can also provide important momentum in the run up to "Super Tuesday"-the Feb. 5 mega-batch of primaries in more than 20 states.

The South Carolina primaries hold particular importance for each party as well: For Democratic candidates, the contest is an early indication of their strength among minority voters: Nearly half of the Democratic voters in the state's 2004 primary were black.

For Republicans, the primary bears historic weight: No Republican candidate since 1980 has won the party's presidential nomination without winning the primary in South Carolina.

With just weeks before the South Carolina contests, the campaigns of Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee upset polls and passed frontrunners in a state both seemed likely to lose only a couple of months before.

The pair's recent success is rooted in different factors, but a common thread runs through both campaigns: deep dependence on grassroots efforts. Presidential candidates may be raising more money and running more sophisticated ad campaigns than ever before, but Obama and Huckabee are out to prove that there may be no substitute for old-fashioned pavement pounding.

Ask Chris Caldwell where he bases operations for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's campaign in South Carolina, and the state field director answers: "Did you see that big, red pickup truck outside?"

Caldwell is joking, but just barely. While other campaigns have multiple regional field offices and a slew of paid staffers in South Carolina, for months Huckabee's official campaign in the state-with its three full-time workers-could be boiled down to a slogan: three guys and a pickup truck.

On a recent Tuesday night in Fort Mill, S.C., Caldwell stood around the marble island in the kitchen of a Huckabee volunteer, sipping sweet tea and talking about running Huckabee's campaign operations in the state with a Jan. 19 Republican primary.

Caldwell grows serious when he talks to Huckabee supporters packed into volunteer Joe St. John's living room: "It really is the golden goose of it all." If South Carolina is a golden goose, the variety of campaign strategies in the state this primary season has proved that there's more than one way to catch that bird.

When he's not driving around in his red truck, Caldwell is sharing office space with two other paid staffers in a tiny office in Columbia, S.C. With only three full-time workers on Huckabee's South Carolina campaign, Caldwell says his job description includes "head cook and bottle washer."

The Huckabee campaign is sending about a dozen additional paid staffers to South Carolina after the Iowa caucuses, but Caldwell acknowledges the campaign relies on the initiative of volunteers to undergird the small operation: "Our entire campaign is a grassroots campaign."

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 is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.