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Obama, Romney volunteers hope to make a difference

Tuesday - 7/3/2012, 5:34pm  ET

By BETH FOUHY
Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (AP) - Re-electing President Barack Obama is so important to Guy Hancock that he spends more time as a volunteer data collector at Obama's campaign headquarters here than at his paying job as a college professor.

"He's had a hard time with a lot of things that weren't under his control but I think he's done a great job," said Hancock, 63. "I've never actually volunteered or been part of a campaign before, but I think it's really important this year."

Ousting Obama drives Karen Chew to spend hours in Fairfax County, Virginia, volunteering for Republican Mitt Romney. An Iraq war veteran forced into bankruptcy after losing her job as a paralegal, Chew said a new president is needed to help people like her who are struggling against the weak economy.

"I know every day what people are going through as far as the discouragement from hitting walls upon walls upon walls. I'm living proof of it," said Chew, 42. "If I can do something to push the country forward by helping Mitt Romney out, then I'm going to be here making phone calls."

Call them passionate, idealistic, earnest, even a tad naive: The volunteers helping to power the Obama and Romney campaigns are outliers at a time when polls show record low public satisfaction with government and a growing belief that Washington isn't on their side. While motivated by opposing goals, the volunteers have at least one thing in common: an abiding faith in the political process and a belief that who occupies the White House still matters.

Surveys, however, show that many voters don't share that optimism.

An Associated Press-GfK poll taken in June found less than half of adults say the outcome of the Nov. 6 election will make a great deal or a lot of difference on three key issues: the economy, unemployment and the federal budget deficit.

Yet the volunteers soldier on.

"My best friend's father gave me grief for coming here today," said Liesa Collins, a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman volunteering at Obama campaign headquarters in Richmond, Va. "I grew up in a community that's way more rich people, the Republican side of things. So it's nice to be here at this office and making a difference."

Both sides rely heavily on volunteer labor even as spending on high-priced staples like TV ads, polling and consultants keeps rising. Indeed, many of a campaign's most labor intensive tasks _ from staffing offices and making telephone calls to knocking on doors and registering voters _ are done by volunteers.

In Ohio, the Romney campaign plans a "Buckeye Blitz" on Saturday aimed at getting volunteers to knock on 30,000 doors in a single day. Two high-profile Romney supporters, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, recently gave a pep talk to grass-roots leaders in the state stressing the importance of volunteer efforts.

"We're a little bit behind the Obama people" in terms of on-the-ground organizing, Portman said. "But we're catching up fast," he assured the volunteers. "We have a lot of momentum on our side."

Both campaigns said they didn't know how many volunteers work for them. But each side often tries to discredit the other's volunteer programs, particularly in battleground states like Florida and Virginia that are likely to help decide the election.

The rival camps also bicker over who has the most intense volunteer corps.

"Volunteers are coming out of the woodwork," said Rich Beeson, Romney's political director. "It's not just your normal Republican base volunteers. It's a lot of new people who haven't been involved in politics before. We'll take anyone who wants to replace this president."

Obama's 2008 campaign set an unprecedented standard for grass-roots involvement, creating MyBarackObama.com _ an online platform to harness volunteer energy _ and attracting an army of volunteers by casting his candidacy as a cause. "This election is not about me, it's about you," Obama told audiences then, often to thunderous applause.

After he was elected, supporters tried to channel that volunteer energy into Organizing for America, a grass-roots effort run by the Democratic National Committee to mobilize support for Obama's policies. But the group never quite made good on its promise to develop a ground-level strategy for pushing his priorities as president.

Today, even the most ardent Obama backers acknowledge that incumbency and a limping economy have caused excitement about his re-election effort to ebb. Obama has acknowledged it himself, saying the campaign this year isn't as "sexy" as it was four years ago.

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