Hitting the road to troll for votes

The Baltimore Sun

CARLISLE, Pa. -- Frank Pratka leaves his office a few times a week to join the commuting throng rolling north on Interstate 83. He lives in Baltimore but has been spending much of his spare time inside a York, Pa., storefront, placing telephone calls for Hillary Clinton.

Lynda Clarke of Towson has traveled to a New York training session for Barack Obama volunteers and bunked in a South Carolina hotel for eight days while toiling for the Illinois senator. Last weekend, she was part of a caravan that traveled from a Dulaney Valley Road coffee shop to this small college town, where she and her newest friends knocked on doors and dropped off brochures.

Clarke and Pratka represent the many Marylanders - from political neophytes to top elected officials - who remain deeply involved in the presidential campaign even though it plowed through the state more than two months ago.

Nearly 1.2 million voters cast ballots in Maryland's presidential primary Feb. 12. Since then, most residents have been content to watch the contest unfold from a distance.

But others, the most passionate of partisans, trekked through snows in Iowa and New Hampshire in January, and descended on struggling Ohio communities in March. And they're still going. With Pennsylvania the focus of the Democratic campaigns for more than five weeks, and the primary vote set for Tuesday, activists are fighting for their favored candidate much closer to home.

"I am nervous about what I am going to do when this is done," said Clarke, who works in public television. "We've been together for a year. After the election, what are we going to do?"

Politics has long been a favorite sport for Baltimoreans and suburban Washington residents. Packed with union members, government workers, consultants and lawyers, the state has been a supply of campaign cash for presidential campaigns, and, this year, of campaign labor as well.

The Mason-Dixon line separating the Old Line and Keystone states is an easy ride for most Marylanders, who are being encouraged to keep up their efforts. Similar calls are going out in New Jersey, which borders Pennsylvania to the east, and in Ohio to the west.

Clinton's most prominent Maryland backers, Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, urged volunteers via e-mail this week to mobilize for 11th-hour get-out-the-vote drives in the central Pennsylvania cities of Harrisburg, Lancaster and York - where Pratka regularly heads.

"People come from all over," said the 59-year-old labor relations manager. "People are all very much single-focused, working to get Hillary elected."

The Obama campaign is organizing buses from Baltimore and Montgomery County to take 75 high school students to the Philadelphia suburbs this weekend, where they'll sleep in the Montgomery County, Pa., campaign office. The trip is "the perfect opportunity" to combat "the image of youth apathy," said Adam Scholl, who runs Obama's national high school campaign.

Former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, who also served as a state representative, has campaigned for Obama in Pittsburgh; former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has sent a letter to Catholic Pennsylvanians, urging them to back Clinton; and O'Malley will appear at an Irish-American rally for Clinton in Philadelphia tonight.

Brown has appeared as a designated surrogate of the Clinton campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Georgia. Last weekend found him closer to home, in Philadelphia, addressing a group of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders; the city branch of the National Congress of Black Women; and congregants at a Baptist church.

Brown acknowledges that he is putting in more work than anticipated as the campaign slogs ahead. The appearances mean time away from his wife and two children - with little time to relax since the end of the annual General Assembly session.

"I made a commitment to Senator Clinton in September. I didn't expect the primary to be going on in mid-April," he said. "Hillary's the coach; she's the captain of the team. We're on the field, and I'm going to keep running my plays, and adding to the effort until this thing is won and lost."

Conversations with voters have changed as the campaign progresses, Brown said. "Earlier on, the primary seemed to be more about the issues; 99 percent of the conversation was Iraq, and health care and other issues," he said. "Now there's so much more inside-baseball going on," with voters parsing Clinton's words on Bosnia or Obama's on voter bitterness that leads them to "cling to" religion and guns.

Rushern L. Baker III, a two-time candidate for Prince George's County executive, organized a trip for 10 of his supporters to campaign for Obama this month. Splitting automobile and hotel expenses, the group arrived in Pittsburgh with a sharp competitive edge.

"We knocked on more houses than any other group," Baker said. "It was one of the hilliest places I have ever door-knocked."

Most of the team had traveled to New Hampshire in January, Baker said. This time, the effort was smoother, he said, with supporters better prepared on talking points, and in high spirits because of the convenience of the travel.

"That's how we sold it: it's a nice drive through the countryside," Baker said, with an early Saturday departure and a "nice dinner" that night. After enduring the New Hampshire winter and the Maryland primary, "people were excited to be able to do something else" for the Obama campaign, he said. They're gearing up now for a North Carolina visit.

Baker promoted the trip through a state-by-state Web site established by the Obama campaign, also used by Clarke, the public television employee from Towson - part of a group that calls itself Baltimore for Barack.

"It is all about giving our time and not dollars," said Nancy Touchette, a Baltimore for Barack member and National Institutes of Health administrator who was knocking on doors in Carlisle with Sarah Brandon, who left her job as a Baltimore attorney to devote more time to the Obama campaign. "It is the power of the grass roots'."

Susan Ness of Bethesda, a top fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and a former Bill Clinton appointee to the Federal Communications Commission, has been to Harrisburg twice, and plans to spend Monday and Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

If the opportunity arises, Ness said she is happy to share personal thoughts about Hillary Clinton, a friend since the early 1980s, as she goes door to door.

"I love canvassing. You get to speak with people. You see what's going on. You do spend enough time to see what they think of the election," she said. "It is a microcosm - but I find it very helpful."

Many Pennsylvanians "are starting to get tired of getting phone calls, and their airwaves are saturated with ads," Ness acknowledged.

But state residents - used to voting late in the primary calendar when in most election years nominees have been decided - "are generally excited that their vote matters," she said. And that energy has seeped across the border.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Reporter Andrew Kipkemboi, an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Sun, contributed to this article.

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