ANKENY, Iowa – New technology and timeworn tactics are driving Democratic ground games in Iowa, where the closely contested caucuses could be determined by which presidential campaign best identifies its supporters and gets them to voting places Jan. 19.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) may use sophisticated telephone technology to track caucus-night voting in a way never before possible, opening new avenues for devilish strategies.
He also is counting on a record-breaking swarm of recruits to abandon their online Internet posts and campaign off-line -- door-to-door, hundreds of miles away from their homes. Many pay their own hotel and food expenses while others feed from vending machines and sleep on bunk beds in far-flung campaign cabins.
Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) has hundreds of union workers, tiny computers in hand, scouring Iowa for fellow labor members who might be swayed.
Dean, Gephardt and two other candidates - Sens. John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search) - have formidable get-out-the-vote (search) operations that, collectively, may the best and most expensive in caucus history, Iowa Democrats say.
For the next 11 days, there's no telling who might be knocking at the door.
"Hi there, ma'am," Scott Davis, 21, said to Mary Morlan in a thick Tupelo, Miss., accent. "Will you be going to the caucuses?"
She was standing outside her home here, stamping her feet on the icy sidewalk while her dog sniffed out a tree. Davis' accent was a bit jarring in suburban Des Moines, but not as much as his appearance: Long hair, scruffy beard, a dirty baseball cap and jeans.
He politely asked, "Do you know who you'll vote for?"
Morlan said Dean.
Or Gephardt. Or Kerry.
Interviews with more than a dozen undecided voters like Morlan, and twice as many campaign workers trying to court them, suggest that few Democrats or independents have escaped attention.
Morlan received two calls last weekend from two separate campaigns, with volunteers soliciting her vote.
She may be lucky. One Democratic activist said she received 14 calls last weekend.
As a typical undecided voter, Morlan can expect to receive two pieces of mail from Kerry's campaign this week, none of it negative.
She may have already received the mailing from Dean that criticized Kerry. Perhaps she got Gephardt's letter that targeted both Dean and Kerry on trade.
Morlan should be getting a call this week from a volunteer in Kerry's campaign, inviting her to attend an event with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. If she shows up, a volunteer will ask her to sign a card indicating her interest in Kerry.
At Gephardt's headquarters, squeezed next to a strip-mall cleaners in Des Moines, Morlan's name may be given to one of her neighbors who was tagged months ago as a "1" - campaign parlance for a firm Gephardt supporter.
Morlan would be labeled a "3" for undecided. The job of Mr. "1" is to sway his neighbor to Gephardt's side.
If she relents, her candidate's campaign will call her two or three more times - including at least once on caucus day - to remind her to vote, and tell her where to do so.
If she needs a ride, she's got it.
In a modest, single-story brick building on the north side of Des Moines, just down the road from a Firestone plant, tables have been erected for phone bankers who are working 24 hours a day for Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (search).
It's one of Iowa's most politically active unions, and Dean has its support.
"We're doing this both here and nationally," AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon said.
The union has 100 hand-held computers scattered around the state, and door-knockers have a list of questions they ask. At the end of each day, the information is fed into bigger computers for use on caucus night.
"We have people working the second and third shifts," Scanlon said.
About 60,000 Iowans attended caucuses in 2000, when then-Vice President Al Gore beat Bill Bradley.
Democrats expect the larger field and anti-Bush sentiments to draw 90,000 to 150,000 on Jan. 19. Dean wants a big turnout because he draws his strongest support from the ranks of Iowans who tell campaign pollsters they infrequently or never attend caucuses.
But his lead narrows sharply when pollsters focus on the 60,000 or so regular caucus-goers.
Deans aides say there will be 600 to 700 volunteers like Mississippi's Davis knocking on doors for Dean this weekend. In a week, the ranks could swell to 3,500.
Though fewer than the 5,000 backers the campaign had predicted, advisers to Kerry, Gephardt and Edwards said Dean's organization is nonetheless impressive. One rival strategist predicted that Dean will have five or six more canvassers than any other candidate.
Gephardt has trained his workers, many of them battle-hardened union veterans, to enforce state residency laws amid concerns that some of Dean's young, out-of-state backers might try to cast votes.
If Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi has his way, he will be able to know real-time how the votes are falling during the caucuses.
Under a plan the campaign is considering, precinct captains would dial a telephone number that would prompt them to punch a series of buttons to indicate vote totals for each candidate.
Theoretically, Dean could use the information to try to shape the field.
If, for example, Trippi finds his candidate comfortably in the lead, he may use the same phone system to instruct precinct captains to throw some Dean votes to Kerry.
A third-place showing would sink Gephardt. A second-place finish would help Kerry muddy the waters in New Hampshire, the follow-up primary.
An adviser to one rival campaign said his candidate, after getting wind of Trippi's plans, may use the same technology. Others dismissed it.
"Once a person gets in that room, they're on their own," said Gephardt strategist David Plouffe.