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On the Road: Atlanta, Georgia

“I got dog-tired beyond Macon and woke up Dean to resume. We got out of the car for air and suddenly both of us were stoned with joy to realize that in the darkness all around us was fragrant green grass and the smell of fresh manure and warm waters. “We’re in the South!”

– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

If there is one shocker on election night in the presidential race, cast your eyes to Georgia. 1,994,990 people voted early in Georgia. 3,301,875 total voted in Georgia’s presidential race in 2004.

Let that sink in.

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“The pullout was greatly exaggerated,” began Caroline Adelman, Georgia Communications Director, Obama for America. The pullout, of course, refers to the publicized redistribution of Obama staffers to other states when it appeared the Illinois Senator had no chance to win. Obama’s skeleton staff of 53 is at least four times bigger than any other Democratic presidential effort in Georgia’s history. Adelman, who’s been involved here for the last five elections, estimated for us that even Bill Clinton, who won the state in 1992, only had a dozen staffers.

With 33 offices and 175 separate staging locations, at least one in every one of Georgia’s 159 counties, Obama’s operation seemed shockingly energetic for a state not on most pundit radars. With roughly 550,000 new voters registered and an exceptionally motivated volunteer base, the infrastructure of the organization was already in place when many organizers were shifted to other states.

Adelman credited wunderkind field operator Alex Lofton, now in Ohio, with setting up the infrastructure before he was considered too valuable not to have in a more competitive state. “He opened up all the offices, he trained all the kids, did conference calls twice a day,” Adelman explained. “He was 23 and doing things in a way twice his age couldn’t accomplish.” Such are Obama’s young brilliant organizers the campaign’s great underwritten story.

“Really, in Georgia, that’s all we needed,” Adelman said. “The rest of it was neighbor to neighbor. People needed to see people in their own neighborhood” talking about Barack Obama. “The only place we were hurt was surrogate visits.”

Indeed, Obama is doing better with white voters in Georgia than either Kerry or Gore. In early voting, African-American voting was 35%. 25% is the historic level. As for totals after election day comes and goes, Adelman said, “anything over 30% and we’re gonna win.”

As the interview progressed just around the noon hour yesterday, we found ourselves pressed by a steady stream of volunteers elbowing us out of the way to get to the phones. In a flash, an already buzzing office grew packed. Volunteers think Obama is going win Georgia.

We asked about the insanely long lines, and whether that would hamper voting. First, we learned, Barack Obama has “Comfort Teams,” which are all volunteer forces who don’t campaign, but simply bring water, hot chocolate and snacks. “No campaigning, no materials,” Adelman said, just making sure the people who have to wait in long lines aren’t hungry or thirsty.

Second, McCain voters, who exist in smaller percentages in Obama-heavy precincts, may not have the same determination to spend all day in line the way Obama’s voters have shown. That’s the flip side of Republican failure to provide enough voting machines in Democratic-heavy districts when Democratic voters refuse to be deterred. It hurts some Republican vote as well, particularly since Republican base enthusiasm for John McCain (Huckabee won the Republican primary) is tepid at best.

What Adelman has already seen in terms of voter determination and quiet peace at the long lines, she admitted, had already brought her and other staff to tears a time or two. “Mayor Franklin and Congressman Lewis have been helping encourage people to stay in line,” and 50-60 people in metro Atlanta alone have helped with the Comfort Teams.

We pressed Adelman on why outside observers should feel confident that Georgians will stay in line, as long as it takes. Adelman paused for a moment, looking for a way to capture the intangible. Finally, with the air of a woman who’d seen early voters up close, she shrugged.

“I just think our voters are going to stand in line.”

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