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Republicans have no better asset with their base than Bush himself, and in gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi three weeks ago, they gave their strategy a test drive. Bush swooped into both states the weekend before the election, and after he spoke, 2,500 volunteers were loaded on buses, given cold water and sandwiches and sent to precincts to knock on doors. Armed with PDAs that had been fed over the course of the campaign with precise information about the interests of those on the other side of the doors, the volunteers came prepared with individualized talking points. In some Republican counties, turnout was up more than 200% over the last election. In mobilizing the Republican base, Bush is the party's principal and all-purpose weapon.
Democrats are determined not to be outhustled at an organizing game they mastered through their traditional mobilization of labor unions. On the same day that Republicans were rolling to victory in the South, Democratic Mayor John Street was overwhelmingly re-elected in Philadelphia, in part because of the 86,000 new registrations that Democrats say they gathered in the city's African-American and Latino neighborhoods. "The Republicans are not really expanding their base; they're turning out their base," says Democratic organizer Steve Rosenthal, whose new group, Partnership for America's Families, helped run the voter-registration operation and has other pilot projects under way in Cleveland, Ohio, and St. Louis, Mo. "The base on the Democratic side is much more expandable than the base on the Republican side."
For Democrats, Bush is also their not-so-secret strategy for mobilizing the faithful. Among them, it helped--not hurt--that Street was under investigation by Bush's Justice Department. "We did the registration; the FBI and the Justice Department took care of the turnout," Rosenthal jokes. Thanks to Bush, he adds, "the liberal side is as organized as it's ever been at this stage of the game. Bush is Bill Clinton to us."
Loathing of Bush has also brought new players into big-time politics--among them, billionaire financier George Soros. In interviews, the immigrant who grew up under Nazi and Soviet rule in Hungary has gone so far as to compare Bush's us-or-them attitude to what he saw around him as a child. Soros has pledged $15.5 million to one of Rosenthal's groups and others working to oust the President, and he has made it clear he plans to give even more. When the Washington Post asked Soros a few weeks ago whether he would spend everything he has to get Bush out of the White House, he replied, "If someone guaranteed it."
For all the get-out-the-base drives on both sides, Republicans and Democrats alike are keenly aware that they cannot ignore Rove's lean green line, no matter how small the number of truly independent voters. In a race as close as the one in 2000, where five states were decided by less than 1% of the vote, even tiny numbers of swing voters can be an electoral tipping point. Both sides hope that if they can expand their own ranks, they will build a cushion against the shifting and unpredictable allegiances of that small handful of late deciders.