CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michelle Obama arrived on the stage here to the strains of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." The audience rocked in the aisles but key pols that I talked to in the hall know that President Obama's reelection is anything but. And operatives from swing states know what the first lady was talking about when she beseeched the crowd to work hard for its candidate.
The "enthusiasm gap" hasn't disappeared, at least not yet; the president still needs to gin up the grassroots energy and drive that he produced four years ago if he expects to win.
"My concern is that we aren't getting the 'over the transom' people we saw four years ago," said Mike Stratton, one of the top Democratic political figures in Colorado. "We have the same organization as last time. We've got offices everywhere and excellent people staffing them. The paid staff is terrific. But what we are missing right now are the walk-ins, the people who came in over the transom without any outreach. They just showed up. That's the way it was in 2008."
The team at Obama's Chicago headquarters has worked diligently, shrewdly and at great cost to upgrade what in 2008 was a state-of-the art grassroots effort. It pioneered "peer-to-peer" campaigning in the digital age, and in effect created precinct networks where none existed before. Campaign manager Jim Messina, a specialist in the granular approach, told me last spring in Chicago that Obama 2.0, organizationally speaking, would be drastically more sophisticated.
"We're building a beast," Messina said proudly, showing me around the vast array of computer-laden desks.
And indeed that new beast is out there in the states. But it has yet to fully get the response it wants, at least in some places.
Like Colorado, Virginia is a dead-even swing state, and like Colorado, evidence of spontaneous excitement is lacking in some places.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a former governor, said that traditional Labor Day rallies around the rural state are a good indicator of political sentiment.
In 2008, Warner said, "Obama for president" yard signs were everywhere. "People were coming in out of the blue to pay for the signs so they could put them up in their yards or carry them at the Labor Day events," he said.
Last week, as he traveled the state with former Gov. Tim Kaine, who is now running for U.S. Senate, Warner looked for the signs. "Tim and I were commenting to each other that we weren't seeing the same kind of things," Warner said. "They weren't buying the signs, let alone displaying them."
To make up for that lack of spontaneous enthusiasm in Southern and Central parts of the state -- regions in which Democratic presidential candidates have rarely had any luck in recent years, until 2008 -- the Obama campaign will need an even stronger turnout of professional women in Virginia's Washington, D.C. suburbs; Hispanics throughout the state; and a new generation of veterans in a place where veterans and military families are numerous.
The Obama administration -- and Michelle in particular -- have paid close attention to military families, and to the needs and problems of Iraq and Afghanistan War vets.
"Veterans are a group where we can do much better this time than last," Warner said. "That's a real cause for hope. Right now I'm concerned. But let's see where we are in a couple of weeks. I'm hopeful, but we have a lot of work to do."
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