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On the Road: Marietta, Ohio

When local field organizer Christian Lund took the stage just prior to Joe Biden’s appearance on Tuesday night in Marietta, he asked those in the attendant crowd of about 4,000 to look at the sheets in their hands. Each sheet held four names, and each name had a phone number and a bar code for later data scanning. Lund asked the people in the crowd to make four phone calls to this targeted group, and then he demonstrated.

Tiny Biden - Biden Rally; Marietta, Ohio

Lund got voicemail. Over the microphone, he left a message informing his phonee about where and when to early vote, as well as where and when the Obama volunteer office was located in town and what it’s hours were. After he was finished, it was the crowd’s turn. “We even got extra cell tower juice just for tonight” Lund told the crowd, so go ahead and make four quick calls on Barack Obama’s behalf. They did.

The other day at Obama’s rally in Toledo, the local organizer asked everyone in attendance to (1) early vote; (2) make 40 phone calls or knock 40 doors; and (3) take Election Day off to help the volunteering effort. This is routine practice at every single event the campaign holds, even at Denver’s Invesco Field acceptance night speech. The largely Democratic crowd is given concrete, practical and manageable field tasks to accomplish.

The goal is gathering a larger and larger volunteer base. A whole night’s shift of phone calls may seem intimidating to a lot of people, particularly introverts, but it’s pretty hard to say no to four calls. Cleverly, Obama’s campaign reasons that the most difficult part of volunteering is the first four calls or knocks. The first part is always the hardest, particularly for volunteers who’ve never worked for a campaign before. Once over the comfort threshold, a potential shift volunteer now feels invested in the work.

Here in Marietta, on the Ohio River in the heart of steel country, the Obama organization is as strong as anywhere. Southeast Ohio is the swing area in one of the great swing states. Marietta, Athens, Zanesville, Steubenville, New Philadelphia… these are the places in the southeast counties where Barack Obama needs to perform well in order to carry the state. During our stop in Columbus, Deputy Communications Director Tom Reynolds pointed to the recent Washington Post Ohio poll that showed Obama ahead of John Kerry’s performance four years ago in southeast Ohio. Joe Biden’s stops in St. Clairsville, Marietta, Athens and Lancaster show how seriously the Obama campaign is taking this region.

Though some very smart people such as Chuck Todd thought Biden’s convention speech was uneven, I thought it was pitched to the right emotional level, particularly for steel towns in southeast Ohio where pundits endlessly pointed out that Obama wasn’t making inroads during the primaries. Indeed, Marc Ambinder reported that Biden’s convention speech “broke the dials” with a steelworker focus group down here when he delivered the line, “Joey, go bloody their nose so that you can walk down the street.” And that feels about right, because Biden connected down here.

Though clearly worn from weeks of solid campaigning and long days with multiple stops, Biden spoke to the assembled crowd with gusto. As has been the case for weeks, the dominant topic was the economy.

Look, at the end of the day, there is a fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama, Governor Palin and Joe Biden, and it can be distilled to one thing. How we measure progress in America. Barack Obama and I measure progress in terms of the dignity and respect for the middle class, the working people of America. Whether you have a job. Whether you have the ability to afford health care for your family. Whether or not you can fill your gas tank. Whether or not you can send your kid to college. And whether, whether or not as my dad used to say you can look your kid in the eye and say ‘honey, I promise you, I promise you, it’s going to be okay.’

Well it will be okay with us! We will keep that promise.

Biden got local, talking about his and Obama’s support of the Delta Queen. “And folks, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one thing; Barack Obama reminded me to remind you of. He’s also working to save the Delta Queen. The job security that it generates. That steamboat brings a lot of money here.”

Speaking of John McCain’s recent economic proposals, Biden joked that McCain had had “what Catholics call an epiphany” about the shift from “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” to acknowledging a serious crisis. “He didn’t all of a sudden acknowledge or realize that the economic policies of the last eight years had driven us into this hole,” Biden said. “That the reason why this crisis was occurring was because of the policies supported. John didn’t see the light; John saw the Presidency receding from his grasp.”

Footbridge to Somewhere; Marietta, Ohio -

As for the Republicans, we made every good faith effort to get a story, but in the end they knew and we knew and they knew that we knew that they knew they were running out the clock on us. We stopped into the Columbus HQ on Saturday and spoke with Deputy Communications Director Jason Levine, explained in detail who we were and the story we were looking for — asking for experienced and first-time Republican volunteers who could educate us and our readers about how the McCain campaign is working on the ground in Ohio.

Levine was cautiously friendly, and told us several times that we should probably be able to get a story, but they wanted to set something up so they could give us volunteers who would be on message. (That, in itself, is a complete contrast to the Obama campaign, who implicitly vests its volunteers with great trust, as they own this grassroots campaign.) After speaking with Levine twice and sending repeated emails, he ran out the clock.

It’s fair enough. We’re not their biggest priority. They probably assume if they haven’t heard of us, how much exposure could photos of their huge phone banks with 40 phones and one lonely caller at their state headquarters three weeks before the election really get?

McCain Ohio State Headquarters -

As for the field offices themselves, we told you about the closed one in Troy. We were ushered out by rent-a-cops in Toledo (the second time I spoke with Levine), and there was a pencil-thin mustachioed rent-a-cop in the HQ where we got that picture.

We’ll keep trying in good faith to speak to communications directors and stop into field offices, and if they’re fair with us, we’ll be fair with them. The problem the McCain folks have is that their offices are empty, and why would you want reporters to do a story on that, or on obviously manufactured volunteer conversations? So, we’re not optimistic, but we’re not quitting. They’ll have to say it to our face.

As we mentioned in the liveblog last night, we stopped in West Virginia yesterday before the debate, so there’ll be a Mountaineer State report, and we’re at Michelle Obama’s speech in Pittsburgh right now.