Obama seeks solid showing in caucuses
Most Democrats don't even know that Barack Obama is on the ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But Obama's campaign staff most definitely does - and though the outcome is assured, his operatives are eager to maximize the organizing, messaging and mobilization opportunities in two states short on electoral votes (11 in all) but long on symbolic, historic and logistical importance.
Since Obama's team began opening offices in battleground states last April, they have viewed the Jan. 3 caucuses and Jan. 10 primary in New Hampshire as vital political table-top exercises, a chance to reactivate and re-energize their vaunted 2008 network of organizers and campaign teams. The short-term goal is modest enough: Grab a few thousand votes to match George W. Bush's showing during his 2004 reelection campaign.
But many in the party are now asking whether the focus on the organizational long game, a much less in-your-face approach than Bill Clinton adopted during the same stretch of his 1996 reelection campaign, will be enough to counter weeks of Obama-bashing by Republicans in both states that could damage him in the general election.
'They are starting to get on the phones,' said a senior New Hampshire union official whose phone wasn't ringing until last week. 'They are not asking people to come in and do work yet. But they are asking for people to come and vote for the President on primary (day). My question is whether they keep it going when the primary leaves New Hampshire. They can't relax if they want to have a chance here.'
That need to make a strong statement in both states, even as Republicans dominate the headlines, is growing. Romney's year-end surge is injecting greater urgency into the effort to ramp up operations gradually in a pair of toss-up states that went for Obama by 9 points each in 2008. Romney's rebound in Iowa - he's now in striking distance of victory after nearly writing off the state - has reduced the possibility of a protracted, bloody GOP primary fight that many of the President's advisers predicted before Newt Gingrich's December dive.
David Yepsen, a former Des Moines political columnist and longtime dean of the Iowa press corps, says his wife, a Democrat, 'has gotten a lot of calls from them reminding her' to mobilize on caucus day.
Obama allies in both states say they see an increasing energy in the outreach effort, matched by the deployment of high-profile surrogates such as DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who spent this weekend bashing the GOP field from Des Moines.
The Gingrich nosedive in Iowa gives the former Massachusetts governor - who enjoys a major home-field advantage in New Hampshire over Obama - a little breathing room to divert some of his attention from the Republican field and run ads depicting himself as a blue-sky optimist with gray temples.
In recent months, Obama's campaign operatives in New Hampshire have become increasingly active in supporting union efforts to block state house Republicans from passing laws that curtail the collective-bargaining rights of public employees and roll back the state's minimum wage law.
Obama for America has opened 11 offices in both states, eight in Iowa, three in New Hampshire - with four more due to open in the Granite State in coming weeks, according to an Obama campaign official.
In Iowa, Obama staffers have held more than 1,200 training sessions, planning sessions, house parties and phone banks, and have made 350,000 calls to supporters. They have hosted more than 4,000 one-on-one meetings with potential supporters and now have offices in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Des Moines, Waterloo, Davenport, Iowa City, Dubuque and Council Bluffs - areas that helped deliver the state to then-Sen. Obama in the hugely consequential 2008 caucuses.
In New Hampshire, a smaller state, the campaign has held more than 500 training sessions, parties and phone banks, along with 3,200 face-to-face meetings. They currently have offices in Manchester, Portsmouth and Concord - and plan on opening four more in the next 30 days, an Obama aide said.
The campaign refused to disclose how many paid staff they have working in either state, so it's hard to compare Obama's effort with GOP candidates.
Obama can't compete on time spent in the state by any of the top Republican candidates, including Romney - who made himself purposefully scarce in Iowa until his chances of winning improved.
The President has visited Iowa several times since taking office. He dropped in on New Hampshire in late November, an appearance that illustrated the perils of parachute campaigning.
Romney was ready. His campaign quickly put up an ad quoting Obama, entirely out of context, repeating a line actually uttered by John McCain in 2008. In the ad, Obama is heard declaring, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.'
The ad prompted a big Democratic outcry - with a DNC spokesman calling Romney 'a serial deceiver.'
But the Romney campaign was delighted to have put Obama's team on the defensive. 'This is what happens to people who forget that there is a process by which they will be challenged, and they will be held accountable,' Romney adviser Stuart Stevens told The New York Times. 'They don't get to choose what this race is about. It's going to be candidate Obama running against President Obama.'
At the moment, Obama has no plans for the kind of high-profile, multiday tour of the state that Clinton embarked on about two weeks before the 1996 GOP primary fight in the Granite State.
Obama's aides say it's a scheduling matter - and is not because of the fallout from the last trip or his well-known problems wooing white independents who make up the backbone of the state's electorate.
'I think it's a good idea for him to stay away,' said New Hampshire radio host Deborah 'Arnie' Arnesen, a onetime Democratic candidate for governor who supports Obama despite reservations.
The GOP primary campaign 'is such a damn roller-coaster, this may be the one time where (Obama's) propensity for no drama - he seems to sit on his hands all the time - is a good idea. The (Republican) insanity speaks for itself. Why get in the middle of it? It's the best billboard Obama doesn't have to pay for.'
Instead, Vice President Joe Biden, who filed Obama's ballot papers in New Hampshire in October, will appear via secure video link to state Democrats gathered in primary-day house parties on Jan. 10.
Obama himself will appear on a similar link-up during Tuesday's Iowa caucuses - sharing a split-screen arrangement with Democratic caucus-goers who will deliver statements of support and ask him questions, a process his staff likens to the opening credit sequence on 'The Brady Bunch.'
Still, the effort has some party veterans questioning whether Obama's team is attacking the two states with the same verve Clinton did 15 years ago. Clinton, along with high-ranking administration officials, shadowed the GOP candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire in the weeks before the contests, stealing the thunder from the Republican candidates and leaving no charge unanswered.
'They are focusing on the organizational component, which is fine,' said one Granite State Democrat with three decades of presidential and state campaigning under his belt.
'One thing Clinton did in 1996 is he spent a lot of money. They had TV ads, they had a full campaign mode going early to fight against this Republican primary crap. We could use more of that. Progressives in New Hampshire have been worried about this all year.'
Glenn Thrush is a reporter for POLITICO. The New Hampshire Union Leader and POLITICO are sharing content for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.