WASHINGTON -- In a cluttered room on the top floor of a Rockville townhouse, Ben Stanfield, a 26-year-old who spends his days running government computer servers, is staying up late to sow the seeds of a Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Obama, the charismatic Illinois senator who is flirting with a run for the Democratic nomination, has barely met this man. And Stanfield is no professional campaign strategist. All of which only fuels his drive to shape the still-amorphous 2008 contest.
Stanfield is the founder of DraftObama.org, one of a handful of Web-enabled efforts that have sprung up to promote the idea of an Obama candidacy. And it's Stanfield's rookie status, his professed lack of ambition to run a presidential campaign and his techno-savvy that appear to be powering his effort.
"The point is to let Senator Obama know that there are a multitude of Americans who will support him if he chooses to run," Stanfield said. "We're not seeing ourselves as a shadow campaign or anything like that. ... I see our job as finished and successful if he decides to run."
What Stanfield started as a primitive-looking one-page post in mid-October has morphed into a center for Obama hype that has attracted close to half a million unique users. He's raised enough cash to fund the production and cable-airing of a professional TV spot, sparked local draft-Obama efforts around the country - Maryland's was launched last Wednesday in Baltimore - and helped garner about 20,000 petition signatures urging the candidate of choice to go for it.
Draft efforts can be a useful tool for would-be candidates looking to gauge enthusiasm for a run. They assemble a ready-made network of supporters and donors, generate buzz and free publicity, and create an appealing story line for a presidential bid. It was a draft effort spearheaded by influential Republicans that goaded Dwight D. Eisenhower into declaring his candidacy in 1952.
More recently, Wesley K. Clark waited until late 2003 - after a draft movement had garnered $2 million in pledges and enlisted tens of thousands of supporters on his behalf - to jump into the presidential fray.
This year, similar groups have emerged to encourage Al Gore, who might be flirting with a presidential bid, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has expressly said she isn't, among others.
"It certainly doesn't hurt a candidate to have all the rest of us know that there are people out there really asking them to run," said Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager. "It's this sense of, 'Geez, I was just sitting here minding my own business, and now they want me to run for president.'"
Stanfield's goal isn't to raise gobs of cash to seed an eventual Obama run - he and his helpers don't expect to raise even the $25,000 that would make it necessary to file with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt political organization - but to feed the enthusiasm that the senator has been stoking since he said two months ago that he would consider a run.
"We feel like he wants us to do this," said Andy Rosenberg, a lobbyist who is helping run the site and giving his friend Stanfield, who volunteered on Rosenberg's 2004 congressional campaign, free legal advice. Noting Obama's spoof of a presidential announcement that was aired on ESPN, Rosenberg said, "You don't do things like that unless you like the attention."
Even Stanfield concedes that his movement is likely superfluous; at this point, few think that Obama's arm needs twisting. "I think he's going to run," Stanfield says, but "there's always doubt."
Obama is carefully keeping the effort at arm's length.
He "feels it's enormously flattering to have this kind of activity going on around the country," said David Axelrod, a close adviser, who has been asked whether he produced the Draft Obama ad. (He didn't, and says neither he nor any of Obama's associates is in any way connected to the effort.)
These days Stanfield, a Pennsylvania-born college dropout who normally spends his free time running a computer news and discussion Web site, has been staying up until 2 and 3 a.m. responding to e-mails, blogging and improving DraftObama.org. A bespectacled, baby-faced and somewhat rotund figure with a goatee and ready giggle, Stanfield seems genuinely shocked by what he's created.
He has had some embarrassing moments, such as the time the name Barack showed up misspelled on the press release announcing his site's official Nov. 29 launch. He has also had a few thrilling ones, such as checking his voicemail and hearing NPR's Mara Liasson on the other end, requesting an interview.
Since Stanfield began the effort, he has attracted some seasoned campaign veterans. John Hlinko, who founded DraftWesleyClark.com in 2003 and helped steer the retired general's presidential bid, and Zephyr Teachout, an Internet organizing director for Howard Dean's 2004 run, have jumped on board as advisers.
Democratic consultant Todd Webster, a former Senate staffer and aide to Gore's presidential campaign, launched his own site, RunObama.com, and partnered with Stanfield to collect the petition signatures, delivered to Obama in person when he visited New Hampshire recently. Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin started an online petition late last month to urge his fellow Illinoisan to run.
Such movements can also carry risks, campaign strategists say. Drafts, by definition, are not supposed to be affiliated with their candidates of choice, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the candidate to control them.
At a DraftObama.org fundraiser at a trendy Washington bar, Local 16, recently, Kris Schultz, the volunteer communications adviser, might have strayed from Obama's chosen talking points when she described her support for him as "almost a spiritual thing - not to get too wiggy on you, not to get too crazy-town on you."
Knowing the draft activists are out there is "a little bit" disconcerting, Axelrod said, adding, "People, in all good intentions, can represent things and say things that you wouldn't necessarily say, and there's nothing you can do about it." But Axelrod doesn't "wake up worried about it in the morning," he said. "I don't think people are looking at these people as spokesmen for the senator, and they're not."
Drafts also can create damaging tension for candidates who choose to run, between seasoned political hands tapped to spearhead their campaigns and the army of volunteers who generate early support.
When he was first approached about Stanfield's effort, Hlinko said, he "recoiled in horror." Internal feuding between Hlinko and his draft activists and political consultants about the direction of the Clark campaign marred the early stages of the retired general's run.
"It's definitely a risk," Hlinko said. "It's kind of like the bomb: it's very, very powerful, but if you're not controlling it, it's a little scary."
Stanfield and his fellow drafters have also met with a hefty share of derision, particularly from the liberal blogosphere. Some have questioned whether the movement is a genuine effort by a group of concerned citizens or a professional campaign-in-waiting launched by ambitious young professionals angling for a plum position if Obama decides to run.
When Hlinko and Teachout announced they were signing on this month, bickering erupted on the left-leaning blog DailyKos about the motives behind DraftObama.org. One blogger opined, "if Obama's inside people are orchestrating this, maybe they are just trying to create some kind of 'netroots' image thing," while another wrote that the drafters were looking for "cushy" Obama camp jobs.
Writing on the same blog, Stanfield shot back that he was mystified about why others were "putting false motives on our actions," calling the speculation "completely wrong" and "just childish."
Trippi said what Stanfield is doing from the comfort of home represents the future of presidential campaigns.
"It's inevitable that within one of the next big races - '08, '12 - you're going to see a candidate who's literally drafted and put on the charts and wins because of a grass-roots movement that was created out of nothing," Trippi said.