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Organizing Iowa Obama's Team Knocks on 10,000 Doors

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Des Moines---Deep in precinct 62 in the southwestern part of town filled with neatly-kept middle class ranch houses built in the 50s and 60s; Kwame Smith walks rain soaked paved streets knocking on the doors of registered Democrats for Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

"Hi, I'm your neighbor Kwame Smith and I'm here to talk to you about Barack Obama. Are you planning on attending your caucus?"

And so begins the hard work of drumming up support for your favorite presidential candidate with the most entitled voters in America - door to door, neighbor to neighbor.

Smith is one of 400 Obama volunteers in 46 communities who knocked on 10,000 doors this Saturday in a race to out-organize the Democratic presidential competition. Smith helped Senator Obama kick off his second major canvassing effort in this early primary state whose voters will be the first to choose a presidential preference.

Senator Obama, still among the top three presidential Democratic candidates here, joined the canvassing effort in Des Moines, shocking those who opened their doors to find the tall candidate smiling and wearing a black leather jacket and blue shirt - sans the tie as is his usual custom - and asking for their vote.
"This is the first time I've been involved in a presidential campaign since I was nine years old and my father took me to a caucus meeting when he supported Reverend Jesse Jackson for president in 1984," said Smith, who is a social worker for the Fifth Federal Judicial District in Des Moines, Iowa.

As we walk down Lewis Street, Smith checks the next house on his list and tells me, "I'm an Obama supporter because he was against the war and Hillary and Edwards supported the war. That's my biggest issue. Obama and my views are exactly the same on the Iraq War. I don't really think Edwards or Hillary wanted to go to war, they were just scared because of the polls
and the early support for it. Barack was right then and he's right now."

Smith knocks on Dan Arply's door and launches into his opening rap until Arply interrupts by saying, "Thanks for stopping by, but I haven't decided on supporting anyone yet."

Arply is a typical Iowan. Most haven't settled on a candidate, but they will be squaring off as caucus time nears.

[There are 1784 neighborhood meetings called caucuses and a candidate must win between 15-25% of those votes in the room. That translates into signing up about 2,000 hardcore supporters articulate enough to sway the other candidate supporters. Precinct captains in each district are key factors in organizing a caucus win, which has historically been a harbinger of success in the New Hampshire Primary and beyond.]

The Iowa caucus date is changing almost weekly but is expected to be scheduled in the first week of January - unless New Hampshire chooses a December date. By law, the Iowa caucus must occur five days before the New Hampshire primary.

Arply tells Smith that he likes Obama and that he's concerned about health care. "But, I see flaws in all the presidential candidates," says Arply.

Smith marks down Arply's concerns on a printed sheet which will be digested by "a machine somewhere in Chicago," says Smith.

Arply and Smith continue discussing health care and the recent cutbacks for children's health care at the federal level before Smith gives him an Obama brochure and promises to see him on caucus night.

"This is tough work," says Smith as we leave Arply's home and walk down the street.

"This is the second weekend I've spent canvassing and I'll do it at least one more time before the caucuses. Normally, on Saturday, I'd be at my second job as a counselor at a Meyer Hall [the county's adolescent home for troubled teens] or spend the day with my 2-year-old daughter, Sia. But, I'm the precinct captain for Obama and I did sign up one new Obama supporter
today!"

Smith proudly shows me the volunteer sign up form that the resident across the street has signed, agreeing to caucus for Obama.

These are the small pleasures precinct captains and volunteers cling to in a day full of meeting strangers and listening to them unload their political concerns and staying pleasant, smiling through it all.

Smith walks briskly to the next house, Dan and Carol Johnson as light rain drops begin to fall again.

The Johnsons are home and they admit to being John Edwards' supporter but they say, almost apologetically, "We like Obama, we're just concerned he isn't experienced enough."

Smith launches into Obama's experience and legislative record. "He's actually got as much experience as John Edwards."

Smith asks the Johnsons who they would support if Edwards doesn't have enough votes to be a viable candidate after the first or second votes during the caucus.

"Oh, I don't know," says Carol Johnson. "One thing is sure, I'm not for Hillary. She's just got too much baggage and I don't want the Democrats to be swift-boated again."

They talk for another fifteen minutes about the long list of issues that concern this retired couple and then Smith reminds them to attend their caucus meeting, "at the church on 14th & McKinley."

The Johnsons wish Smith well and as he walks away he tells me, "They're the first Edwards' supporters I've met today. I've also met one hard-core Hillary supporter."

On the eighteen doors that Smith knocked today - and found someone at home - there are two Edwards' supporters, one hardcore Hillary supporter and two Obama supporters with an energetic committed Obama precinct captain at the helm.

This microcosm of precinct 62 in Des Moines seems to shore-up the latest Iowa Poll that pits the top three candidates about evenly split, if you figure the margin of error at 6.4%. Obama looks to be doing what he needs to do to earn a blue ribbon showing on a cold caucus night, but the
competition is as tough as Smith's job today.

After finishing his list for the day, Smith drives back to the Obama headquarters office in downtown Des Moines, reports his findings to Chris Young, a full-time political organizer and retells his best story of the day:

"I got a new volunteer. He's never attended a caucus before and I've got another few interested!"

The youthful Obama staffers listen intently to Smith, check his results, and thank him for giving up a rare Saturday when he could have been with his daughter or making a few bucks at his second job.

This kind of organizing is exactly what the Iowa caucuses' demand of its presidential candidates. There are no short cuts, no big advertising buys, and no big-time endorsements that take the place of shoe leather hitting the pavement and lone volunteers knocking on doors.

Read more OffTheBus coverage here.