Campaigns in high gear in Iowa

The GOP presidential candidates have left the state, but with the caucuses four months away — and perhaps three — their staff members are hard at work.

Reporting from Des Moines—

After swarming Iowa before the August straw poll, presidential candidates have largely fled in favor of fundraising and events elsewhere. But their campaigns are working furiously as the winter caucuses loom.

The campaigns are snatching up the most coveted activists and endorsements and signing up leaders for each of the state’s 99 counties and the nearly 1,800 precincts. These workers, mostly volunteers, are charged with persuading the more than 100,000 voters expected on caucus night to support their candidate, and minding the details that make victory possible, like arranging rides on a freezing winter night.

“The campaigns are doing right now what is going to make or break them,” said Craig Schoenfeld, a Des Moines lawyer who worked this summer on an independent effort on behalf of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The most basic information about the caucuses — the date — remains in flux. Iowa officials scheduled them for Feb. 6, but an early January date now seems more realistic. That likelihood has cut out a month of planning time for the campaigns and has escalated the importance of people like Rachel Raak Law, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom from Correctionville.

Raak Law glanced at her cellphone’s caller ID recently to find a Philadelphia phone number displayed. She wondered briefly whether the caller might be former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whom she had met a few times as he campaigned nearby.

“By golly, it really was,” Raak Law said. “I was just flabbergasted. We briefly talked about how his campaign was going, how things were looking for him, and he asked if I would chair for him [in Ida County]. I said, ‘I’d be honored to do that for you.’ It was just like talking to my dad, he was so down to earth.”

Such personal contacts are key to campaigning in the Hawkeye State, where voters expect both face time with the candidates and assurances from their neighbors. The caucuses here are unlike a primary in California or elsewhere, where citizens make their choices individually, and often by mail. Caucusing in Iowa requires showing up at a gathering place and staying for at least an hour, as supporters of each candidate make a public case before voters choose sides.

Complicating the organizational effort in Iowa are recent shifts in the race, notably the departure of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the arrival of Perry. Pawlenty had been campaigning for more than a year before he dropped out in August, and the competition for his supporters and staff has been fierce.

Santorum barely registers in national polls, but the intense effort he has put into organizing in the hinterlands of Iowa could cut into support for Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Perry, since all three are courting the same conservative voters.

Bachmann has plummeted in recent polls, but several Republican insiders argue that she still shows strength in Iowa because of the work her campaign did before she won the straw poll. A chart in Bachmann’s brick Urbandale office shows that volunteers had made 45,000 phone calls by August and are keeping touch with those supporters.

She has also built deep ties among home-schoolers and evangelicals, “a formidable force here in Iowa,” said Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, a GOP activist who is uncommitted. “I still think Bachmann has an organizational advantage over all of them, at least at this point.”

Perry has moved quickly to build an organization since he joined the race in August. He snapped up several key Pawlenty staffers, including the ex-candidate’s top state advisor and four field operatives with great knowledge of the state’s political workings.

“We’re doing the blocking and tackling for the Iowa caucus, we’re getting people organized, identifying who our supporters are, taking a statewide approach,” said Matthew Whitaker, who was Pawlenty’s Iowa chairman and now is Perry’s state co-chairman.

Perry’s chief rival in the wider campaign for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has a base of support in Iowa from his unsuccessful 2008 run, when he invested heavily in the state. His campaign spent several million dollars on television advertising and boasted a staff of dozens by this point in that cycle.

The scale of his operation made his second-place finish in the caucuses a disappointment and contributed to his eventual departure from the race. This time around, his campaign is leaner and relying on a cadre of volunteers, with just three paid staffers in the state. But campaign officials promise a greater presence as the caucuses grow closer.

“We’ll be here enough to demonstrate to Iowans that Gov. Romney is the best candidate to beat Barack Obama on jobs and the economy,” said Dave Kochel, Romney’s top Iowa advisor.

President Obama does not face a primary challenge but is nonetheless organizing because Iowa is likely to be a general election swing state in 2012.

Since Obama formally launched his reelection bid in April, his Iowa staff has held more than 100 house parties, training sessions, phone banks and other events and has made more than 100,000 phone calls to past supporters. His campaign opened eight field offices across the state last week.

“We’re doing what we need to do to prepare for next year,” said Obama spokesman John Kraus.

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