McCain supporters face uphill climb in NJ

October 12, 2008 7:16:41 AM PDT
Walter Zjawin is trying to help John McCain do what no Republican has done in 20 years: win a presidential general election in New Jersey. But it's a decidedly uphill battle in one of the bluest states in America. New Jersey is far from the focus of either national campaign as the days - and dollars - dwindle, and McCain has already pulled out of states like Michigan that once held far more promise for him.

Still, Zjawin, a retired postal worker and Vietnam veteran regularly pulls into a nondescript office building, walks up a winding staircase to a conference room and starts calling voters in solidly Democratic areas, asking them to support McCain.

"Most Republican candidates in this state put their headquarters in the heart of Republican country, call all Republicans - and get 38 percent of the vote," said state Sen. Bill Baroni, McCain's New Jersey campaign chairman. "To win this election, we need to talk to people other than Republicans."

Will any of this work?

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, doesn't think so.

"Given the electoral performance of the state in recent elections and the number of new registrations from the Feb. 5 primary, most of which were Democrats, it's not very likely McCain can pull an upset here," Harrison said.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Tuesday gave Barack Obama a 13-point lead in New Jersey. The same poll a month earlier had McCain within 6 points of Obama.

While McCain has five paid staffers in New Jersey, Obama has five times that amount.

Across the state in Obama's West Windsor headquarters, the Democrat's campaign workers and volunteers don't seem worried about an upset.

"We're not taking anything for granted, and we are fighting for every vote," said Obama spokesman Andrew Poag. "But we're feeling pretty good about New Jersey."

History isn't on McCain's side, either. New Jersey hasn't supported a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

To try to cut into the Democrats' natural advantage in the Garden State, the McCain camp has been courting voters in blue-collar Democratic areas where Reagan did well, and who went for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

One recent day was "Bayonne Day," in which 15 volunteers, including Zjawin, were given lists of registered voters to call in the blue-collar Hudson County bastion. He connected with one voter who said he planned to vote for McCain, listing the economy and national security as his main concerns.

Zjawin recorded that information on an optical scanner sheet similar to school standardized tests, categorizing the voter's preferences for a campaign database that would, among other things, be used to remind him to get to the polls on Election Day.

"We're calling and knocking on doors in places where voters may never have seen or heard from a Republican," Baroni said. "You can't win an election with just Republicans in New Jersey. We're going after the independents and swing voters that determine every election in this state."

In addition to Bayonne, Carteret and Sayreville in Middlesex County, Hamilton in Mercer County, and Galloway in Atlantic County are among places the McCain camp says it is making inroads with undecided voters.

"I hope I'm making a difference," said Zjawin, whose son is a captain in the Marine Corps with three tours in Iraq already under his belt. "I hope the outcome is positive for America."

The Obama camp's natural strengths lie in heavily Democratic areas like Essex, Bergen, Hudson, Union, Middlesex and Camden counties. But it, too, is taking the fight to the other team's stronghold.

One tactic the campaign is using is training volunteers to become community organizers, following in the nominee's own footsteps. The daylong sessions teach volunteers how to canvass door-to-door, register people to vote, and try to make them feel part of a larger movement for positive change.

"It's not just enough to admire Barack Obama; we want you to be like Barack Obama and build relationships to accomplish your goals," said Jocelyn Woodards, a campaign worker who helped start the training sessions in Chicago and spread them to other states.

One woman who went through "Obama Camp," as they call it, is Kathy Frisch, who is now using what she learned to help drum up support for Obama in heavily Republican Ocean County.

"It was discouraging at first; my initial efforts were so naive, but we kept at it, and we've registered several hundred new Democrats in Ocean County," she said. "There's a lot more support for Obama than people might think in this bedrock Republican county."

With New Jersey and its 15 electoral votes seemingly safe in the Democratic column, many of the Obama campaign's calls to voters in the Garden State ask if they would be willing to help contact voters in swing states like Pennsylvania in support of the Obama/Biden ticket. The campaign has organized what it calls "Drive For Change" events in which caravans of Obama supporters drive across the state and into Pennsylvania to knock on doors of voters there.


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