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Obama machine revving up across the island

The Illinois senator leads the local money race, as both parties ready for caucuses.

Patrick Sheldon can measure grassroots support for Barack Obama in parking spaces.

He expected to host 20 or 30 islanders at his Ward Avenue home Thursday, to discuss the Illinois senator’s presidential bid and prepare for the Feb. 9 state caucus. But close to 60 responded to his ad for the event, sending him on a scramble to find room for people and cars.

“It’s been overwhelming, but that’s good,” he said. “You want a room full of excited people, not just five people. We’re definitely going to have rooms full of excited people.”

In less than four weeks Sheldon and fellow Washington voters will caucus to determine the delegate count for candidates seeking party nominations. For local organizers it means the coming days will be spent training caucus goers for what can be an intimidatingly complex process, and galvanizing support for candidates.

If money is the measure, Obama has so far swept Bainbridge.

According to the non-profit website opensecrets.org, islanders had contributed $42,403 to the Illinois Senator’s campaign as of Jan. 7. John Edwards’ campaign had reeled in $16,400 from Bainbridge, while Sen. Hillary Clinton had raised $10,600, though the tally was taken before her win in the New Hampshire primary.

Republican Sen. John McCain was leading GOP candidates with $9,850 in Bainbridge donations going into New Hampshire.

Sheldon believes Obama’s local fundraising success is proof that his message is finding traction.

“I do think that his message of change strikes a very good chord in a very progressive, active community like Bainbridge,” he said.

Though Sheldon speaks with youthful fervor about his chosen candidate, he is not one of the 20-somethings touted as Obama’s base. Sheldon said he was 4 years old when he first became involved with a campaign, doorbelling in Pierce County for John F. Kennedy’s presidential bid.

Since then he has organized for several national and state campaigns including his mother Betti’s successful runs for state senator of the 23rd Legislative District.

Sheldon said the emergence of the Internet as a networking and fundraising tool has changed campaigning the most. He points out that in the last presidential election, Howard Dean was considered the Internet maverick for having raised $51 million from individual donors with a largely web-based campaign.

Clinton and Obama’s campaigns have already eclipsed that total with $80 million each from individual donors, and the bulk of the primary season yet to come.

“Four years ago it was important,” Sheldon said of the Internet. “Now it’s pervasive.”

Obama has not yet begun an official Washington campaign, so Sheldon and other supporters have used the Internet to organize unofficial meetings. They have a group page on the candidate’s official website and are linked to a statewide grassroots Obama website.

Most of the candidates’ websites have a zip code search feature that will find the closest groups and events for supporters.

While the web is important for Clinton, she’ll use old fashioned political expertise in Washington as well, said islander Maura Brueger.

Brueger, who works for King County Executive Ron Sims, is a member of Clinton’s Washington steering committee along with U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, who endorsed Clinton early in her campaign.

Brueger said having election veterans like Inslee on the committee will give Clinton a leg up when it comes to turning out the vote and helping democrats navigate the caucus process.

“Caucuses are not the kind of thing where you can just rely on national momentum for a candidate,” Brueger said.

Over the next week she and other Clinton volunteers will be selecting local campaign leaders for the caucus, and will announce a round of endorsements from local politicians.

When she has finished organizing precinct leaders and caucus training sessions, Brueger said she turn her attention to Bainbridge.

“In the next week or two I hope to get focused on Bainbridge and make sure Hillary does really, really well there,” she said.

Meanwhile there are 15 members of a Bainbridge “One Corps” chapter on Edwards’ website. Group captain Eric Draluck said the Edwards effort on the island is just beginning to gear up for the caucus.

Draluck plans to call donors and organize Edwards meetings in the coming weeks.

“I’ve been trying to get further along getting organized, and we will beore the caucuses,” he said.

Edwards backer Todd Blanchard said it’s hard to find the time to organize with other supporters and travel to regional rallies.

“I’ve done financial contributions, but I’m not able to give time, just money,” he said.

Blanchard, who is self employed, hopes to make it to the caucus to support Edwards, who he feels will take issues like health care head on.

“I’ve had a couple of minor health issues in the past and I’ve been denied coverage,” Blanchard said. “We need real healthcare reform and I don’t think Hillary or Obama will do that.”

The Republican party features a more even field of potential nominees, which could make for a challenging decision come caucus time, said Robbie Sitzman of the Bainbrige Island Republican Women.

Sitzman said she and Republican friends had been interested in Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani early on, but McCain’s strong showing New Hampshire means they’ll be keeping a close eye on the national campaigns.

“With regard to the presidential election, we like two or three candidates, so we’re just sitting back and waiting,” she said. “The caucuses are so difficult because they’re not really a picture of what will happen down the road.”

Libertarian-leaning Republican candidate Ron Paul has made a splash across Kitsap County. The online Kitsap Ron Paul Republican Club has 108 members and has hosted dozens of meetings.

Along with the presidential caucus, there is excitement surrounding Dino Rossi’s second gubernatorial campaign and the Republican Women will host Inslee challenger Larry Ishmael on Bainbridge in February.

Islander James Olsen, an executive board member for the Kitsap County Republican Party, said interest in state elections combined with the presidential races could help turn outRepublican voters. The 2004 GOP caucus fielded just 60 participants.

“I think the turnout will be big, people will be invigorated and we’ll see what the Democrats do on their side,” Olsen said.

Four years ago, some 1,600 Democrats came out to haggle for their candidates. Organizers expect another flood in February.

“It was astonishing to see how many people turned out in the last caucus,” Sheldon said. “I have the feeling it will be even bigger this year.”

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See caucus

Both Republican and Democratic caucuses will be held Feb. 9. For Republican party information, see www.kitsaprepublicans.com; for Democratic party instructions and precinct locations see www.kitsap23rd.com.

A mail-in primary will be held on Feb. 19.

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