UNDERCOVER 


"We're your regular yellow-dog Democrats," Sherry tells me, referring to loyal Southern Democrats. "Though we have a lot of Republicans in our family."

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I find that last part hard to believe. Sherry is a consummate salesperson. I've been canvassing Central Florida neighborhoods with her for the past three hours on a pleasantly windy Tuesday afternoon, and given Sherry's persuasive nature, her ability to talk politics for hours on end and, simply, the natural affinity people seem to have for her – they'll invite her into their homes and divulge their life stories to someone they've never met – it's hard to see how the Ohio-born mother of two hasn't swung her entire family blue.

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Sherry could sell ice to an Eskimo. These days, however, she spends up to 10 hours a day volunteering for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, going door to door trying to sell her neighbors on the prospect of President Barack Obama. Her husband does the same on the weekends.

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Sherry takes this stuff seriously. She cut her teeth volunteering for John Kerry four years ago, and this time around, she senses less hostility to the Democratic ticket. There is a sense of urgency to her walk. She hurries me through neighborhoods, knocking on as many doors as possible. Anyone on the street is fair game, too. Sherry is a fearless advocate.

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I, on the other hand, am a complete introvert. It's my first time canvassing, and I'm terrified of talking to strangers. But I'm here on a grander mission – getting in on the ground floor of this year's Democratic campaign. There's been plenty of talk about the Obama campaign's bottom-up tactics, which helped him win an improbable victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. These grass-roots efforts – registering new voters, pushing get-out-the-vote campaigns, using social networking tools to encourage peer-to-peer campaign activity and volunteerism – are clearly key to his strategy, especially here in the Sunshine State, where polls show the race pretty much even.

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But I also wanted to see the other side of the coin, to see how the local McCain campaign was employing these same techniques and technologies. Were the Republicans keeping pace? How would they put a young, Spanish-speaking woman to work?

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I spent a week volunteering for both campaigns – not on any sort of an ideological mission, but rather, to get a perspective most reporters must speculate about from the outside. And because I wanted unvarnished access, not a public relations tour, I engaged in the ethically murky but necessary practice of concealing my role as a reporter. (Because the people with whom I interacted didn't know they were "on the record," I will refer to them only on a first-name basis.)

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As one might suspect, the Obama campaign proved much more organized than that of Sen. John McCain, though it was also more spread out. With Obama, you had tons of volunteer events with few participants. Those who showed up tended to be young white kids who became engaged with the campaign via the Internet. They focused on registering new voters. The McCain campaign, on the other hand, brought together less frequent, but larger groups of white seniors and conservative middle-aged Republicans, and focused on phone banking and making sure that their supporters got absentee ballots.

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The enthusiasm gap was noticeable. On the Obama side, the energy was palpable. They were fired up. They were here to change the world, one registered voter at a time. On the McCain side, volunteering seemed more rote, almost like it was a job or an obligation.

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Whether or not that translates into an Obama victory in Florida Nov. 4 remains to be seen.

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7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29

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I walk into the local Republican headquarters on South Semoran Boulevard and find a room filled with volunteers, scurrying about with cell phones glued to ears and clipboards in hand. A giant stuffed elephant head on the wall stares at me creepily, almost like he's calling me on my subterfuge.

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After five minutes, someone finally acknowledges my presence, and, phone in hand, ushers me toward a table where two other volunteers are surrounded by a mountain of paperwork and empty water bottles. I wonder if anyone will put the phone down long enough to chat.

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Ryan, a college kid, explains that they're making phone calls to registered Republicans to encourage them to vote by mail. He hands me a phone, a list and a survey. First, I'm to ask who the person supports for president, followed by some questions about voting issues like gas prices and health care. Obama voters don't get asked if they need an absentee ballot. McCain voters do.

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"We've got to reach as many people as we can this week, before the absentee ballot deadline," says Ryan, who is on his second day ; of volunteering.

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The Oct. 6 voter registration deadline looms. Without Florida, the McCain camp has very little hope of reaching the necessary 270 electoral votes, so the GOP is scrambling.

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After about 40 phone calls (and just five pick-ups – all for McCain) and 35 voice-mail messages, I decide that it's time to get to know these people, even if it means prying the phones off their ears.

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I try to find someone who cares that I speak Spanish and that I can help with Hispanic voter registration, since I'm Cuban and Cubans represent a huge chunk of the GOP's Florida base. Someone instructs me to sign a log for Spanish speakers, then refers me to Blas Padrino, a ; candidate for the Orange County Soil and Water Conservation Board, who has me fold his campaign brochures for a half-hour.

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I leave at 8:30 p.m., feeling a little useless but promising to come back for canvassing.

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4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30

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I meet Sherry at the Democratic precinct office in Winter Springs. There we meet with James, the Obama office's field director and event planner. James embodies the grass-roots modus operandi of the Obama campaign. He began interning for the campaign this summer and worked his way up.

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"The campaign in Orlando has been quite autonomous," James tells me. "There are levels from field directors to state organizers, but there isn't a sense of hierarchy. Everyone works together."

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James, who is tall, lanky and in his early 30s, was part of the Ocoee office before volunteer efforts moved to Winter Springs. "In Ocoee we were working a predominantly black community, but I'm not sure what the demographics are here," he says. "We'll just have to find out."

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The neighborhood we are assigned to canvass is definitely minority-heavy. I meet with a lot of Guineans, as well as some Haitians and Hispanics. Our list targets active Democrat voters, although we do have a few Republicans to persuade.

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James tells us that we should ask Republican voters which national issues are swaying them toward McCain and then try to woo them with our extensive Obama knowledge (and a cheat sheet, of course). The form they give us is complicated as hell. You get the ages and names of family members, and a bubble sheet filled with codes pertaining to the questions we're supposed to ask. "NH" means "not home," "RF" means "refused," "BA" means "bad address" and so on. Half the time I'm so busy trying to figure out the coding that I forget I have to talk to people.

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From what I can gather, though, Obama is going to do pretty well in this neighborhood. Most of the residents who answer their doors are happy to sign pledges to vote for Obama, and out of about 50 houses, I meet just three people who politely say they support McCain, and one man who is less than polite: "You're votin' for the wrong damn guy," he tells me.

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11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1

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I have to admit I'm really excited, and I don't care that it's 90 degrees outside and I stupidly wore a long-sleeve shirt. I'm going to see Bill Clinton, the guy who not only led us into peacetime economic expansion (ah, the good ol' days) but also taught my generation neat tricks to do with a cigar. Besides, he's kind of considered a celebrity. There's more talk in the line outside the University of Central Florida arena, where he'll be speaking, of actually getting to see the former president than there is about his support for Obama.

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People start dropping like flies from heat exhaustion when Clinton characteristically arrives 30 minutes late and talks for about 45 minutes about how our country needs Obama to steer it out of the gutter. Then Clinton mentions all the terrible things the Bush administration did to get us there, like adding $4 trillion to the national debt and, of course, ruining Wall Street.

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Favorite line: "You know, where I grew up in Arkansas we had a saying that if you find a turtle on a fencepost, chances are it didn't get there by accident."

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So is President Bush the turtle or the ; fencepost?

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6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2

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The event was listed as "Women for Obama," but when I show up at the clubhouse of a downtown apartment building, it turns out to be a gathering for those who oppose Amendment 2, which would ban gay marriage. There are 10 women, mostly 30-somethings, and two older gentlemen. Conveniently, I happened to bring not one, but two girlfriends with me.

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All in all, the women provided. There's plenty of wine, booze and snacks. Marcia Monserrat, the politics and finance director of Florida Red and Blue, the organization opposing Amendment 2, gives a tear-jerking speech about a straight couple in a domestic partnership who lost hospital visiting rights when one of them became seriously ill. I also meet what should be the poster couple for gay rights: Charlie and Dave, two men who have been together for more than 25 years. They share stories of exotic vacations and make jokes about giving each other massages. Cute.

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Eventually two people from the Obama campaign show up and I meet Michelle, a 27-year-old college graduate and field organizer for Orlando4Obama – which has its own MySpace page, with funky music and a moving timeline of Obama's life since his schooling in the 1970s. Michelle is young, hip and amazingly engaging when she talks about Obama and the grass-roots movement.

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"I had never been involved in politics before this campaign," she tells me. "But after showing up to all the campaign volunteering events throughout the primaries, I was asked to attend the Democratic National Convention as a grass-roots delegate. He could've gone with some Washington big shot, but he chose me and rewarded my hard work. That's what the Obama campaign is all about."

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At 8 p.m., I leave the festivities for a vice presidential debate watching party that, quite honestly, I've been looking forward to all week. I found the event on McCain's website: "It's a Palin party!"

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After signing up, I'd received an e-mail from Tricia, the event's host, asking me, and I quote, "Do not ring the bell, just knock quietly and walk in (we have a small house and will hear the knock if we are in the middle of prayers with the kids) I will have drinks out on the table and will ask that you get a drink and have a seat in the living room.  The T.V. will be on." Creepy. Still, this couldn't help but ; be awesome.

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Except it wasn't. After driving 20 minutes into the middle of nowhere, I pull up to the subdivision's front gate – of course it's a gated community – only to be told by the attendant that the debate party was cancelled. So I went out for a drink instead.

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Hey, Tricia, praying that I get the message is not enough – you actually have to hit send.

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10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 4

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I'm back at the Republican headquarters for a two-hour precinct walk. There are 15 people already here. Five of them are in their late 60s, and the rest, excluding myself and one other woman, are in their 30s or 40s. I notice that the men are formally dressed in khaki pants and tucked-in dress shirts. I feel underdressed in a tank top and cargo pants.

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I've managed to walk in at an opportune time: The group is discussing the local issues that most concern them. Ken, a local civil attorney, tells me that crime rates have gone up all over Orlando. He blames the current sheriff, Kevin Beary (a Republican turned independent), whom he says has been in office too long and has lost control of the city.

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A former military guy in his mid-40s tells us he's upset that our tax money goes to organizations like Planned Parenthood and ACORN – two of the right's most hated entities – the latter of which he's certain is involved in voter fraud. Then a woman in her 60s from Pine Hills asks if anyone will help canvass her neighborhood to sway Obama supporters. Everyone ignores her, though she's quite persistent.

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A very motivated Lew Oliver, head of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee and today's walk leader, passes out McCain shirts and clipboards with a questionnaire similar to the one used for the Obama walk, but much simpler. The form has four questions, basically the same ones we asked while phone banking. The bubble sheet only has a few codes – they're either home or they're not.

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Oliver tells us that we should treat the walk as we would a routine survey. He doesn't want us to be aggressive, but rather to find out what national issues concern voters, and register new ones. Unlike the Obama campaign, the McCain folks don't have pledge cards. Their focus is on asking McCain voters if they'd like absentee ballots.

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Everyone is assigned his or her own neighborhood in the Dr. Phillips area. The form has the residents' names and indicates the number of people per household, but doesn't show party affiliations. Ken and I decide to partner up, which means I get a firsthand look at his approach on his first precinct walk.

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Ken is pleasantly nerdy and utterly conservative. A polar opposite of Sherry and her dauntless personality, Ken's introverted and seems like the kind of guy fathers would like their daughters to bring home because they'd know he's harmless.

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I sense Ken isn't entirely comfortable with knocking on strangers' doors. He gives a few light knocks and only rings the doorbell once. He's also extra-cautious of stepping on lawns in the predominantly white middle- to upper-class community – I can't blame him; the houses are immaculate – in which we're canvassing.

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Ken and I take turns speaking to those residents who answer the door, and for those who don't – most of them – we leave literature at the door. Out of some 40 houses, we come across four McCain supporters: two old conservative men and two women in their 30s. One resident, a 40-something woman, tells us we aren't going to like her answer to the first question.

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"I'm leaning towards Obama," she says. I ask her why.

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"I believe a woman should have a right to choose," she says. "That's what holds me back from voting for McCain. But I have to say I really like Palin."

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Ken doesn't pry. He is quietly defeated. After an hour I tell Ken I have to go to work. He says he'll stay behind. The truth is, I'm bored, and I think he is too, but he'd never admit it.

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10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8

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As I watch the second presidential debate on DVR, a funny thought occurs to me. I'm watching Obama's poise and powerful manner, but I'm reminded of Sherry. I can picture her standing in front of strangers, commanding their attention with simply the tone of her voice and the sheer force of her passion. And then I look at McCain, his shaky voice and awkward, stiff posture – and yet there's an endearing quality, something that reminds me of Ken avoiding lawns and timidly knocking on doors.

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These people, regardless of their ideology, are sacrificing their time and resources to be part of a greater cause. Will the handful of people Sherry may sway between now and Nov. 4 swing the election by themselves? Probably not. Will Ken's commitment to trudging through neighborhoods despite his visible discomfort single-handedly keep Florida red? Of course not. But they do it anyway.

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I realize that, in a sense, we're not really voting for a president. We're voting instead for the people and ideals each candidate represents. Candidates and campaigns are imperfect. But the people I've seen this past week both accurately and strangely personify the presidential nominee they support. They are, ultimately, what this election is all about.

; feedback@orlandoweekly.com

More by Adriana Ruiz

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