Obama in Idaho

Democratic candidate takes a chance on a red state


Go to any Democratic or nominally liberal event in Boise (the University of Idaho game?) these days, and there they are: the Obama people, decked out in their neat, tastefully patriotic campaign paraphernalia, clipboards and palm cards in hand. They're not as in your face as the Ron Paul hawkers at Saturday market, but open to a chat about "change."

Then later in the night, you might find the core group on a couch at the downtown Boise bar Lush, still talking politics, but getting a little less serious.

These are the people rooting for a black president in Idaho, the former home state of the old Aryan Nation. They occasionally get hung up on by Idahoans who say they won't ever vote for a black person. And they're rooting for a liberal commander in chief in a state where Mitt Romney drops by for breakfast and rakes in $100,000.

People keep asking, "What are the Obama people doing here?" It's usually a pleasantly surprised kind of question, tinged with flattery: Why are these young Democratic people lavishing their presence on our red state?

Sometimes it's tinged with self-congratulation: I like his "fresh face." I am a very open person. I like basketball, too. I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and gosh darnit, it's time we had a black president in America.

These supporters are not all young people, by the way. At a recent holiday/going-away party at the Obama headquarters on the Boise Bench, baby boomer ladies and even some retired homemakers chilled in the loft, picking at the lunchmeats and chips.

They seemed to like posing with the life-size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama near the door. Obama supporters say don't expect a Hillary Clinton cutout in Idaho any time soon.

Wendy Jaquet, Idaho House minority leader, said Clinton would turn off Idaho's "squishy" independent voters, but Obama could swing them his way.

"I was a JFK person in the '60s, and to see so many young people engaged with [Obama] makes me feel like he's a real viable candidate," she said.

Jaquet recently endorsed Obama. She's the highest-ranking state Democrat to do so, and she offers 11 down-home reasons for her endorsement. Number 10: He will help my legislators get re-elected, and we'll pick up more seats (Hillary will be tough to have on the Idaho ticket). Number 11: He stood in front of me at a national Democratic event and I liked his demeanor, body language and the way he dealt with the women who were in his group.

So why did Obama put up the money for an office and two staffers here?

In part, because he could afford to: "We've raised a lot of money, and more than we expected, so we're able to spread our resources a little wider," said Joey Bristol, Idaho's first paid Obama field organizer.

He's the guy they were bidding farewell to at the holiday party. He's off to Iowa to round up undecideds. But he is leaving in place two paid staffers and a growing club of volunteers. Bristol also pointed out that Feb. 5 is going to be a more important date than previously thought. Even in Idaho.

"We think, the strategists think, that February 5 will be the date on which the nomination is determined," Bristol said.

So an Obama office just opened in Alaska, the state with the fewest votes at the Democratic convention if you don't count Wyoming, Guam or American Samoa. Heck, Puerto Rico has more delegates than Idaho and Alaska combined.

For a decade or more, there has been talk of a Western states primary day. It has yet to materialize. But on Feb. 5, the day of Idaho's Democratic caucus (and Alaska's), there will be at least 22 states in play. And more than 2,000 delegate votes.

A candidate needs 2,026 delegates at the convention in Denver to win the nomination. They will be going for a few dozen more to protect against the chaos of political conventions and the whim of the superdelegates, who can stand for any candidate they like.

So by the time you turn off CNN in disgust on Feb. 5, we'll have a pretty good idea whose cardboard cutout will become a collector's item.

All of the focus on Iowa is nice and traditional and good for election buzz but there are only 57 delegates there. And delegates are not awarded like electoral college votes. They can be split between candidates. So winning California is not as important as winning a nice chunk of California's delegates.

Katie Whittier, another Obama field organizer, called the campaign presence in the Feb. 5 states "a firewall" and said it's evidence Obama understands community organizing better than most.

John Foster, who runs Idaho's Democratic Party, compares Obama's strategy to Howard Dean's 50-state strategy for the national party, a plan that caused many establishment Democrats to yank out their hair. Dean's "strategy" pays for three warm bodies in Idaho's state party, for example.

"That looked like a joke in most people's eyes," Foster said. "Until Larry Craig."

Foster's point: having people on the ground in Idaho can pay off.

"This is the first time Idaho has held a caucus where the nominee is not already known," he said.

Usually, Idaho's primary is at the tail end of primary season. With little hope for a Democrat winning Idaho, they have been lackluster affairs. Many people do not even realize that the Democratic caucus has been pushed up to February.

So the Obama people have been making sure people know about their potential role in nominating the next president. That's what they are doing in 17 or 18 of the Feb. 5 states, and Bristol says that after Iowa and New Hampshire, campaign staff will fan out in greater numbers in those states.

By then, Foster, who has been in touch with each of the Democratic camps, hopes a few other candidates will set up shop in Boise.