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Final Va. election push is 'calling and hauling'

Thursday - 11/1/2012, 12:56pm  ET

AP Political Writer

NORTH, Va. - With the candidates' cases largely made and voters mostly decided in Virginia's close, nasty and expensive presidential and Senate races, success on Tuesday rests on the most basic and old-fashioned electioneering effort - turnout.

For generations in rural outposts across the state like North in Mathews County, they've called it "calling and hauling."

"Most people have made up their minds by this time in the election," said William Simmons, a 76-year-old retiree who settled in this Chesapeake Bay crossroads largely dependent on fishing and crabbing.

A resolute Romney supporter, Simmons tunes out the unprecedented barrage of jagged-edged political ads, and he trashed all of the snarky direct mail from across the political spectrum that finds its way to his post office box.

On Monday, with a cold, stinging rain from Hurricane Sandy's periphery pelting the plate-glass window of North's tiny post office, Simmons peered into the trash can where he'd tossed a half dozen slick political brochures and scowled.

"It makes you sick at your stomach to think of the money these two characters have spent to get elected, particularly when you think of the jobs it could bring to a place that needs them like Mathews County," Simmons said.

The last thing he needs is someone telling him when, where and how to vote. But that's where the emphasis of all campaigns has turned in the closing days of this election.

Four years ago, the most powerful and organized get-out-the-vote effort Virginia had ever experienced helped President Barack Obama end 40 years of unbroken Republican presidential victories in the state.

For months, Obama's organization had refined publicly obtainable data on voters and people eligible but not registered to vote. It was responsible for the vast majority of the 484,796 new registrations added to Virginia voter rolls from 2007 to 2008, the largest single-year increase since 1976, the earliest year for which data are available on the State Board of Elections Web site.

That year, 75 percent of Virginia's 5 million registered voters went to the polls, the SBE records show, driven largely by the Obama-dominated Democratic turnout program. More than one in seven ballots was an absentee ballot cast weeks or days before the election.

More than 506,000 absentee ballots were cast in the 2008 presidential race, almost 2 1/2 times the previous high absentee count of 222,000 in 2004, and Obama took nearly two-thirds of the absentee vote.

Nobody watched Obama's "ground game" more closely or emulated it as thoroughly as Bob McDonnell, a Republican whose gubernatorial campaign had just moved to the launching pad. Early the next year, McDonnell shook up the state Republican Party, installed the wily Pat Mullins as its chairman, and assembled a turnout program within the victory-starved GOP that would endure beyond McDonnell's own 2009 landslide victory.

Since then, it has added muscle with each election, powering GOP triumphs in the 2010 U.S. House races, and last year's legislative contests where Republicans stripped control of the state Senate from the Democrats.

"Our effort this year has dwarfed 2008 or '09," McDonnell said. "We're having people come in from blue (Democratic) states to the swing states to work, and I was a beneficiary of that in '09."

Republicans this year claim to have made 5 million phone calls and knocked on at least 1 million doors in Virginia _ gaudy numbers impossible to independently verify. Democrats won't discuss their estimates, saying their adversaries would only cook up even larger numbers to trump it.

Mike Henry, manager of former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's U.S. Senate race, said Wednesday that his campaign, allied with volunteers for the Democratic coordinated campaign and Obama's organization, is reaching about 50,000 voters per day from call centers in campaign offices across the state.

One of those volunteers, 27-year-old Elizabeth Johnson, works almost every evening that she can spare from her job at a suburban Richmond winery, and weekends to boot.

"Weeknights, I'm calling," she said, glancing down at a clipboard filled with a thick stack of spreadsheets containing hundreds of names and phone numbers of voters vetted and deemed friendly or persuadable by door-to-door canvassers. "Weekends, it's door-knocking and canvassing."

Another Democratic volunteer, Ginny Hain, was stationed along a line of Obama supporters that eventually numbered 15,000 before a Richmond rally last week, conscripting them for volunteer duty in the campaign's final dozen days.

"I fill in wherever I need to be," the 23-year-old Kentuckian said. "I help with canvassing, I help train folks up and get them out knocking on their neighbors' doors."

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