The radio in Kim Heckman's Subaru is tuned to National Public Radio as she steers away from Sen. Barack Obama's campaign office (a former J.C. Penney) in downtown Springfield, Missouri, and toward her own neighborhood. Heckman, an eighth-grade teacher, has been canvassing door-to-door on this turf every weekend since May, rain or shine.
"I've been happy," she says. "I've been very — I don't want to say surprised, but sometimes a Democrat in Greene County is hard to find." She laughs.
That's been especially true the past two elections. In 2000, Greene County voters chose George W. Bush over Al Gore 57.5 percent to 39.9 percent. Four years ago, John Kerry earned just 37.2 percent of the county's votes (to Bush's 62.2 percent).
The Greene County Democratic Central Committee, which has headquarters in Springfield year-round, estimates that about a quarter of the county's voters are independent, so the Obama campaign has invested a great deal of energy here. Swing-state Missouri matters: The winner in Missouri has also won the general election in every contest but one since 1904.
Heckman's neighborhood is a mishmash of political yard signs, including one that reads, simply, "Sarah!"
The architecture is as varied as the politics in the streets near Heckman's home. Houses fronted by grand, white columns stand a block from a row of modest Sears Modern Homes, built from catalog-ordered components between 1908 and 1940.
Heckman walks past a jampacked, weekend yard sale to knock on her first door of the day. She's following a route given to her at the Obama office. The map is speckled with dots signifying addresses of registered voters yet to be contacted by the Obama campaign.
At the first house, Obama literature has already been placed in the lap of the decorative scarecrow on the porch, implying that the campaign's tracking of its own efforts is imperfect. No one is home, and the next three houses are similarly unoccupied. There's good reason for people to be out on a Saturday — the Taste of Springfield festival is going on under white tents downtown, and the weather is beautiful.
"I'll be bummed if I don't talk to anyone today," she says.
Eventually, Heckman finds a woman at home. She starts: "I'm with the Obama campaign and I'm just going around the neighborhood, trying to find out who our supporters are."
"I'm one!" the woman answers. She can't volunteer, though — she says she's a teacher in the nearby city of Ozark and is busy raising a child herself.
At the home of another voter, a woman steps onto the porch and admits, "I haven't decided — I haven't been paying much attention. I know that's bad." Behind her, a little girl smiles through the screen door. The woman explains that this is her parents' house, which she has moved into, so Heckman gives her a new voter-registration card. The woman promises to drop it off later. Walking away, Heckman scolds herself. "I should have told her it has to be done by next Tuesday."
Heckman climbs the stairs to a Spanish-style house with a roof of terra-cotta tiles. A middle-aged man comes to the door. When Heckman asks whether he and his wife know which candidate they're supporting, he says, "As soon as McCain picked his running mate, that's when we knew who we were voting for."
Finally — a Republican?
"We're voting for Obama. We are voting against Sarah Palin, plain and simple."
The reaction at the next house, where the woman who answers the door looks a little like Cindy McCain, is even more strongly in favor of Obama. She's a single mom with two high-school-age kids and two jobs. She says that for her, the federal bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG were the last straw.
"I pay my bills," the woman says. "I'm not in debt at all. But if I do something wrong, what happens?"
Heckman's on a roll of Obama supporters' houses, including one at which the occupant cheerfully tells her to relax. "He's going to win! McCain pulled out of Michigan! He's done! Go celebrate!"
A few houses later, a tall man in an Indiana T-shirt answers the door of a huge house. A Mizzou flag waves out front. "We're very ambivalent about the presidential election this year," the man says of himself and his wife. "We'll vote in the local election but probably not in the national election." Heckman thanks him and moves on without pushing her line of questioning.
"Not voting," she says as she walks away. "What do you say to that?"
She thinks for a moment.
"Maybe he doesn't like any of their policies," Heckman continues. "Maybe he's racist. Who knows?"
When Heckman has checked off all the houses on her list, she drives back to the campaign office to report her findings. She knocked on 39 doors, spoke to nine people and committed one volunteer to future work.
"That's about average," she says. "That's what they tell me, anyway. Just keep whittling away!"
The response is guaranteed to be less Obama-positive in a bedroom community nine miles south of Springfield called Republic. Today, Republic is holding its annual Pumpkin Daze festival. Farmers haul their gargantuan pumpkins, some topping half a ton, and enter them in one of the few contests that boasts a digital scale big enough to weigh such a vegetable. Forklifts are required. The event always draws a crowd. Crowds draw campaigners.
Republic's fire department has raised the ladder of one of its engines to fly an American flag high over Main Street. The Obama table is about halfway down a long row of shaded booths. Pumpkin Daze attracts a wide assortment of vendors (a NASCAR carnival game with remote-controlled cars, a booth selling fried Oreos, a Bible-witnessing table, a tent selling knockoff designer purses), but no Democratic candidate has bothered to set up a table here since 2000.
Jean Weinberg, the regional press secretary for the Obama campaign in Springfield, Joplin and Cape Girardeau, sits behind a table covered in sign-in sheets and pamphlets. She's wearing a new pair of alligator-skin cowboy boots, purchased from one of the area's western-wear superstores. A plastic Obama bracelet shares wrist space with a gold Cartier bangle. The 27-year-old is taking time off from her job in New York, where she's the communications director for a City Council member in Brooklyn, to push for Obama in the Midwest.
"I told the campaign I wanted to be somewhere that's really important, where I could really make an impact, and this is where they sent me," she says. She says the heart of Obama's rural campaign strategy lies in its ground-level volunteers, such as Heckman in Springfield, who carry the message from neighbor to neighbor.
Jim Gwaltney, a 62-year-old volunteer in Republic who's also at the Obama booth, knows that going neighbor to neighbor sometimes means getting a door slammed in your face. He estimates this has happened to him six or seven times.
"When I first started canvassing, I had people say, 'You're a Democrat and you knocked on my door? I've lived here for 45 years, and that's never happened,'" Gwaltney says. He is a Vietnam veteran who supports Obama because, he says, "My generation got us in the mess we're in now. It's time to start turning it around, and another guy from my generation isn't going to do it."
A blond woman leads her two small children by the hands down Main Street. All three wear blue McCain-Palin stickers on their shirts. As the woman glances up at the Obama tent, her expression hardens slightly. A moment later, a man in a red-flannel work shirt comes up to ask where he can get a yard sign.
Gauging the interest in Obama's campaign from the festival sidelines is heartening for Pat Klos, an 81-year-old Obama volunteer who, until now, had been doing much of her work on the phone, calling around in Republic. "Not that many people will come out and tell me they're voting for McCain," Klos says. "Some of them say they're leaning toward McCain, you know. There just aren't that many voters who tell me they are going to vote for Barack. Not on the telephone. That's why I'm amazed that so many people have come by here today."
Klos worked on Sen. John Kerry's campaign in 2004, when a Democratic voter was even harder to come by around here. This election is something new.
"You can tell there's money," Klos says, smiling.
A cheer goes up in the distance. A pumpkin-smashing relay is under way. Each squash hits the ground with a satisfying plok, spilling seeds and guts onto the asphalt. The political winds may be uncertain here, but the power of gravity is unquestionable.
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