Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Splinter groups line up behind Obama

By Christi Parsons for the Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- In southern Illinois, one gun-rights advocate is recommending Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to his hunting friends and talking about forming a group with the working title "Sportsmen for Obama."

"I don't agree with everything he says about guns, but he gets the sportsman's point of view on it," said state Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Norris City), who served with Obama in the state legislature. "He would never do anything to hurt hunters, because he has bothered to get to know us and listen to us."

Support from a group like the one Phelps is proposing, even an ad hoc one, could help ingratiate Obama with more conservative voters, either in rural areas or even among union members with strong pro-gun views.

In the early hours after Obama announced his presidential exploratory committee Tuesday, Phelps was one of hundreds of people who reached out to formally offer services representing any number of viewpoints. The flood of responses, Obama aides say, has swamped the budding campaign operation.

Friends from the Illinois legislature are offering to work as a truth-squad against attacks on his Statehouse record. In the Quad Cities in western Illinois, local Democrats want to help Obama launch his foray into nearby Iowa, which holds the nation's first caucuses.

A Chicago minister volunteered to take time off from his church to work for the campaign full time. Students who met up on the Facebook site have launched an independent group named Students for Barack Obama.

Each group says they approached Obama's offices unsolicited, which the senator's staffers say is how they want things to work.

"We want this to be seen by people as a campaign that is going to be built from the bottom up," said Robert Gibbs, an adviser to Obama. "Barack began his career as a community organizer . . . . It's in jobs like that that you see the power that people can have."

That certainly would be the campaign's desire, though it belies the reality of an organization that is expected to raise tens of millions of dollars and includes hundreds of professional staff.

And no doubt, grassroots efforts running independently of a political campaign carry their own risks, such as confusion among volunteers, duplicative work and even phony groups influenced by political adversaries. In a political age when staying "on message" is everything, work not coordinated by the central campaign could be a modern strategist's worst nightmare.

Then there's always the possibility that a "grassroots organization" will later be revealed as a carefully managed stage production.

But several of the offers come from elected officials and other Democratic leaders around Illinois, and their sponsors say they're genuine.

State Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has offered to put together a team of lawmakers to tout and defend Obama's record in the General Assembly, where he served in the state Senate for eight years.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) is offering to introduce Obama around the House, where many members haven't had a chance to get to know him.

North Shore Democrats say they are getting calls from volunteers who want to make bus trips to promote Obama in Iowa. In the Quad Cities, local Democrats are offering to set up a base of operation for the Iowa caucuses.

"My Senate office is literally right across the Mississippi River, a few blocks away," said state Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline). "I could certainly shoot a crossbow from here and hit Iowa."

Offers have come from all over the country, campaign aides say.

Famid Sinha, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is a founder of Students for Barack Obama, which she said is a completely student-led movement that got its start with a Facebook group called "Barack Obama for President in 2008." The group now has more than 31,000 members, she said.

"We started 100 percent on our own," Sinha said. "This is one of the reasons our group is so significant. The fact that 30-some odd thousand students proactively sought to join our movement speaks volumes to the revolutionary nature of Sen. Obama's candidacy."

As a Democrat in conservative southern Illinois, Phelps appreciates Obama's message about talking across the political divide.

"Those heartfelt issues tend to divide people," Phelps said. "But Barack, he does bridge that."
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