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On the Road: Charlotte, North Carolina

“Dean rattled on like this; he was overjoyed and exuberant. He and I suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there. Off we roared south. We picked up another hitchhiker. This was a sad young kid who said he had an aunt who owned a grocery store in Dunn, North Carolina, right outside Fayetteville… we were in Dunn in an hour, at dusk.”

– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

Early Voting, North Carolina -

The first day Sarah Poore came to John McCain’s Hickory, North Carolina Victory field office, she felt too nervous to make phone calls. Instead, Poore helped organize bubble sheets. But it wasn’t long before the polite young home schooler finished 3d in the state in a Meet-Sarah-Palin calling contest, with 3,000 calls on the campaign’s behalf in under a week.

In the month the Hickory Victory office has been open, Poore estimates she’s made eight to ten thousand calls. Beginning at noon and going until 7:30 or 8 pm, Poore dials using the sophisticated direct-input-to-voter file phones we’ve seen in every Republican office from coast to coast.

Both Poore and her dialing partner Karen McGuire said the phones, which replaced the cell phones that dialers in the office initially had to use, made the work easier. Like Poore, McGuire hadn’t ever made phone calls for a campaign.

“I was so nervous,” said the cheerful McGuire, “I thought, that’s like telemarketing.” The mother of two, who often brings her 8-year old and 5-year old to the office, said “it helped that my first phone call was a Republican.”

While Poore found her way to the office when an close family friend called her mother and her to come help, McGuire saw a local newspaper story that an office was opening up, and now often shows up on her lunch hours to work. “We smile and dial,” she beamed. The only downside to her involvement is she might have a a little less in her stocking this holiday season.

“I can’t ask for anything for Christmas” from her husband, she said, “because he drove me across the state” to see Sarah Palin in Greenville. That was their bargain. “He put (me saying) it on video.”

Sarah -

Down in Charlotte, we found an Obama office to compete with Obama’s Falls Church, VA office from last weekend. The energy enveloped us from the moment we set foot inside. Each of the 80-90 people in the large office was occupied in a task. Clustered in twos and fives and tens, packed into every corner of the large office space, people of every age and race gathered for canvassing instruction, organized packets, crunched data or dialed their neighbors. The force and focus of the effort would have stunned us, except we’ve seen those determined faces every single day in Obama field offices.

Russell Crandall, part of Obama’s policy team for the last two years who had been knocking doors for Obama on a regular basis himself, stood near the front of the office amid a group of mostly first-time canvassing volunteers and explained how to accomplish the mission. It was his first time training others for the canvassing task. He explained the mechanics: odd-numbered houses and even-numbered houses listed on the walk sheets, where to park before starting the list, literature to drop, what to say if someone needed a ride to the polls, what to do if the address was in an apartment building without access. Crandall stressed correct data capture: “the only way we can get them a ride is if the data gets back.”

He also talked about how to handle uncomfortable or even confrontational situations at the door. “It’s not worth it,” he said, urging the volunteers to simply move on as quickly as possible in those situations, and not to put themselves in any danger. (Veteran canvassers know that door conversations are almost always more polite than their phone counterparts. It’s just harder to be rude to someone’s face.)

After the training, we talked with Crandall about what he’d seen in Charlotte. He estimated the office would train 75 doorknocking volunteers just that day, just in that one Charlotte office. One thing that struck him was the way the campaign trusted its volunteers to take responsibility if the campaign simply provided the tools and overall direction. “The delegation of responsibility was tremendous,” said Crandall.

“Suddenly people who five minutes before hadn’t had a connection to a campaign” were now taking on duties and responsibilities for operational details of the ground effort. The inclusiveness of Barack Obama’s grassroots campaign is a refrain we’ve heard from coast to coast during this trip, and no less so in North Carolina, where an incredible number of newly-inspired volunteers and voters are on the verge of painting the state Carolina blue.

Russell -

We visited an early voting location not far from the office, and saw lines stretching out of the office and around the corner. We tracked movement and extrapolated the wait to be roughly an hour and a half. Nobody in line left, and nobody appeared anxious to leave.

According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, by Sunday 1,078,710 had voted early in the Tarheel State, compared with only 984,000 ballots in the entire early voting period in 2004. We’re only halfway through the early vote. Something big is happening in North Carolina this time, a state George W. Bush carried by over 12 points in 2004.

An observation we’ve heard repeated in Obama offices across America, Crandall emphasized how beneficial the contested primary had been for building the foundation for record turnout. “We had real hints of it in the primary,” Crandall said. The first-time voters the campaign energized for the May 6 vote foreshadowed what North Carolina is seeing today. Crandall remembers thinking “these are NOT your typical primary voters.”

That observation rang true to us as we observed early voting in the general. As we race toward the ultimate conclusion in just over a week, Obama’s team of volunteers and organizers in Charlotte, North Carolina knows it is leaving everything on the field.