Saturday, November 20, 2004

Page 2 of 5 Ground War (

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Ground War

"There are 172 days left between now and Election Day," Rosenthal says on this day in May, "and 537 is the number of votes that they claim that George Bush won by in Florida."

"Boooooooo!" chorus the canvassers.

"What I do when I am thinking about an election is, I break it down," says Rosenthal, "person by person, name by name, every single voter that we talk to, and who they talk to, to connect them to what we need to do in this state." Pennsylvanians will cast between 4.8 million and 5 million votes, Rosenthal predicts, and "we have to get 2 1/2 million of them."

In the Trenches

In the billion-dollar business of modern politics, the highly paid consultancy chatters about the metric, the margin of error, the media buy, the group psychology dynamic, the focus group. The consultancy runs the air war, planning surgical ad strikes from a distance.

Rosenthal works down on the ground. In his big corner office two blocks from the White House, he is restless behind his desk. "He doesn't like to just stay in D.C. and go to all the same restaurants where you can have all the same conversations," says JoDee Winterhoff, a former top aide to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and now political director for America Coming Together. From now until Election Day, Rosenthal will spend two or three days each week in states where the electoral votes are seen as up for grabs.

One of these visits takes him to black North Philadelphia with the canvassers, mostly middle-age African American and West Indian women. He knocks on doors, peers through torn curtains, steps gingerly past a rusting bike with missing wheels. He is looking for what works and what doesn't, constantly assessing and measuring. As Tom Lindenfeld, a veteran grass-roots strategist working with him, puts it, "You don't get what you expect. You get what you inspect."

It is hot, dirty and desperate on these blocks, but they are Democratic blocks. Philadelphia voted 80 percent for Al Gore in 2000. By Election Day 2003, Democratic registration in the city had surged by an additional 86,000, primarily from pilot efforts designed and funded under Rosenthal's auspices, and carried out by field workers close to Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). Now former Fattah aide Greg Naylor is state director for America Coming Together. Naylor's longtime colleague Donald Redmond is heading up the group's operation in Missouri. Since canvassing began again this spring, registration has grown more than 100,000 since 2000.

This feat is even more staggering when viewed from the pavement. Rosenthal is teaming up with Maria Watson, a nursing home employee in New York and one of 30 members of the Service International Employees Union who have moved to Philadelphia for six months, leaving their lives, and in Watson's case, her 4-year-old grandson, behind. The two peer at Watson's Palm, which displays a block list drawn from voter registration and property records. They knock on the first door. "Beautiful," Rosenthal mutters. "Nobody lives here," in contradiction to the data. The second house is abandoned. At the third door, a child nearby calls out, "Nobody live there."

"Thank you, baby," Watson calls back. Her grandson smiles out from a big button she wears on her shirt. "You must miss him," says Rosenthal. "I'm doing this for him," she says firmly. They walk past the Perfect Love Ministries storefront church and Jessie's Nice & Polite Lounge and tackle another block of houses with sagging porches, shabby roofs and DirecTV satellite dishes.

"What are your major concerns?" Watson asks a woman coming home from work. Her Palm prompts her with a list, so that America Coming Together can stay in touch on those particular issues and use them to motivate the voter to go to the polls on Election Day.

"Crime? Drugs? Education? Jobs?"

"Yes, yes, yes and yes!" says the woman.

Up another walkway go Rosenthal and Watson, stepping over the trash. "Hey, I'm a candidate," calls a guy with bloodshot eyes. "I'm running for president." At another house, a man in an NRA cap answers their knock. "Are you registered?" says Rosenthal. "Yes," says the man. As a seasoned organizer, Rosenthal knows that "yes" can be a way of saying "leave me alone." So he holds the man's gaze, until the man reaches into his wallet and pulls out his registration card.

On another block, they linger for a moment in front of a house with flower boxes and cleanly swept Astroturf covering the steps. "See this?" Rosenthal instructs, jerking a thumb at this example of homeowner pride. "These are your people you use to maintain contact on your block."



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