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Armed with phones, friends and a strong dose of faith, local volunteers round up support for their candidates in Feb. 5 primary

A simple glance disclosed whom Palo Alto resident Melba Harrison will vote for in next week's presidential primary.

A purple "Obama" hat capped her thick, wavy hair, which grazed an "Obama" sticker on her purple sweater.

"The colors of the flag -- red and blue -- make purple!" Harrison said with a grin at the candidate's Palo Alto field office on a recent morning.

Harrison, 79, has lived in Palo Alto for more than 55 years, raising children and grandchildren and working as a secretary for decades at SRI, the former Stanford Research Institute.

At SRI she watched heads-of-state walk by her desk, but none awed her quite like Barack Obama did when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, she said.

He promised change and seemed "new and fresh," she said. She followed his ascendancy to candidate and trusted his promise to end the Iraq war, a fight that troubles her deeply, she said.

This winter, inspired by a niece volunteering for the campaign, Harrison decided to make good on a long-standing New Year's resolution: Get politically involved.

Hundreds if not thousands of Palo Alto residents have dedicated large portions of their lives in the past months to candidates they fervently support.

They have given up evenings to call voters -- or even converted an office into an after-hours campaign headquarters, as Hillary Clinton supporter Amy Rao did with hers.

Teachers have come out of retirement, and CEOs have had the novel experience of being hung up on -- all to help their man, or woman, get to the White House.

Harrison has come to Obama's field office on El Camino Real to tidy up a few times -- arriving in a nearly spotless 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass with "Impeach the son of a Bush!" bumper stickers on front and back -- and methodically spreads the word to everyone she encounters.

These volunteer efforts form a massive push to garner votes for the Feb. 5 primary and ultimately the November presidential election.

Dubbed "Super Tuesday" because voters in more than 20 states cast ballots, the primaries will determine whom huge blocks of party delegates will advocate for as their presidential candidates.

From seasoned political boosters to first-timers, volunteers from all parties said this election urgently matters. The country's future is at stake, they said, and so is the world's.

Limited print space prevents the Weekly from profiling volunteers working on behalf of every candidate, including Democrats John Edwards and Mike Gravel, and Republicans Mike Huckabee, Alan Keyes, John McCain and Ron Paul.

Below is a snapshot of how a handful of volunteers from the Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns have been striving to get their candidates votes.

Harrison's campaigning approach -- lending Obama's book to her hairdresser and writing "Vote for Obama!" on the back of all her mail -- might seem folksy, almost whimsical.

For many local volunteers, a more business-like approach to grassroots activism, known as "phone banking," consumes their time.

For an afternoon or evening, they dial strangers. Call after call, they repeat their pitch almost mantra-like, hoping to drum up support from those who answer.

Volunteers get their phone lists from the campaign organizers, which use paid-for electronic services that collate publicly available voter information.

Harrison opts out of phone banking because multiple hip surgeries have made it painful to sit for a long time, she said.

But others throw themselves into the work with gusto.

Rick Holbrook, 55, sat in his downtown Palo Alto office earlier this month, surrounded by images of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise and the sinuous red canyons of Utah's Monument Valley.

The cozy, attractive room in a Craftsman-style house is Holbrook Global Strategies, the Mitt Romney supporter's office and occasional campaigning site.

Holbrook usually calls from home but sometimes, as on this Friday afternoon, he uses the office as his base, he said.

At 4 p.m. sharp, Romney's online database opened to allow Holbrook to log on and begin calling registered Florida Republicans to garner votes for the state's Jan. 29 primary.

The computer dialed and a script popped up onscreen, leaving Holbrook to launch energetically into the call.

He asked for the voter's name that appeared on screen.

"My name is Rick, and I'm a volunteer with the Mitt Romney campaign. How are you doing today?" he said.

There was a short reply.

"OK. I'll call back later," he said.

Over the next two hours he made dozens of calls but spoke to only about 20 people, he said. Less than half of respondents usually agree to chat with him, let alone act friendly, he said.

But he maintained the incessant optimism of a determined supporter.

"I figure, 'Hey, it's still OK.' The one you do talk to can make a positive impact," he said.

Like Harrison, Holbrook is a newbie when it comes to volunteering for a political campaign, but he too believes much is at stake in this election.

The country is an economic and foreign-policy mess right now, and Romney is good at fixing messes, he said. The Salt Lake City Olympics were shaken by a financial scandal before Romney became CEO of its organizing committee, he said.

A businessman and invest-firm founder like Romney, Holbrook first met the candidate in 1978 after graduating from Stanford University's business school. Romney interviewed him for a position at Bain Capital and impressed him with his affability and intelligence, he said.

In addition to phone banking, Holbrook sends out a weekly e-mail to friends and periodically calls on supporters to give more.

"Some people say, 'How could you possibly enjoy calling people for money?' but I kind-of like it," he said.

"It forces me to justify and explain and say, 'Here's our man.'"

He estimated he spends about five hours a week campaigning -- not counting the larger, periodic fundraisers he helps organize or the trip he made to Boston in early January for a call-a-thon at Romney headquarters.

Giving up leisure time for campaigning is an easy trade-off for him, he said.

"You just kind-of fit it in, and other things just fall by the wayside," he said.

"Fitting it in" is the approach for Gene Wang, a 50-year-old entrepreneur working on his third Palo Alto start-up.

His daily schedule might include meeting with venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to discuss his latest company, then heading to a saxophone lesson before capping the day with some calls for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Wang also flew to Nevada to pull for votes in the Jan. 19 caucus.

The three-time CEO said he wasn't used to getting hung up on or making copies or stapling -- his assigned tasks in Nevada. But like other volunteers, he stayed inspired by the idea of what could happen if his candidate wins the nomination and presidency.

Energetic and with a seemingly permanent smile, Wang is easy to visualize in an anecdote he tells of chasing two airport employees into an airport bathroom, an act of last-minute campaigning when waiting for his flight home to board.

Clinton ended up beating Obama by a slim margin in Nevada.

Like Harrison and Holbrook, he hadn't been a political volunteer before this campaign, but he was closely related -- literally -- to one of Clinton's biggest local supporters: Amy Rao.

Rao met Clinton in the early 1990s and has been her friend and supporter since, Rao said, most recently turning her company's office near the Baylands into an official campaign field office.

Rao is also the sister of Wang's wife, Leslie.

So when Wang decided it was time to get active in the campaign, he turned to Rao. Then he began pitching in for fundraisers and -- perhaps inevitably -- volunteering at the phone bank at Integrated Archive Systems, Rao's office-cum-campaign headquarters.

Rao bustled about the office on an evening in mid-January, making sure that despite the chilly night outside, volunteers were well-stocked with sandwiches and coffee within.

Yet Wang didn't need the caffeine.

He leaned forward and spoke into the phone with unflagging enthusiasm to the person on the other end.

This campaign is worth the effort, he said.

He worries about a possible future draft for the Iraq war, the economy and the environment, but likes Clinton's stance and thinks she has the experience to lead, he said.

In his jacket pocket was further evidence of his dedication: a DVD of the YouTube video he created last year, "Hillary4U&Me."

He penned the peppy, almost Disney-like theme song and recorded it in a music studio he built in his backyard.

"Hillary for you and me! Bring back our democracy!" runs the chorus, while his wife, daughter and friends dance in a video shot at Palo Alto's University Club.

At press time, the video had netted around 1,100 viewings after three months, a relatively small sum. (The infamous "I got a crush ... on Obama" video popularized last year, in which a scantily clad starlet sings about the candidate, had about 5.4 million viewings after seven months.)

But Clinton loved the song when he and friends performed it live at a recent Atherton fundraiser, Wang said.

For Joe Sanchis, 28, an investment advisor for Washington Mutual, being co-chair of Rudy Giuliani's campaign in California's 14th Congressional District is a full-time job.

Between running phone banks, visiting local fairs and college campuses in search of volunteers and supervising those who've already signed on -- to name a few tasks -- he is busy every evening after work and on weekends, he said.

Yet the packed schedule is business as usual, he said.

He has been active in campaigns since college, including acting as a Young Professional Chair for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Bay Area election campaign, he said.

He has no misgivings about placing Giuliani's presidential push at the center of his life.

"I don't think I'm giving up anything. I don't feel like I'm sacrificing," said Sanchis, who campaigns for Giuliani on an unpaid basis.

The United States desperately needs a strong leader right now, and Giuliani turned crime-ridden New York around and led the city during tough times following Sept. 11, he said.

Yet it may be tough to convince local voters -- nearly three times as many Palo Alto residents are registered Democrats as Republicans, at 17,840 and 6,560 respectively, according to Elma Rosas of the Santa Clara County registrar's office.

Obama and Clinton have field offices here, and Republican candidates have none.

But campaigning for a Republican in a Democratic area is not daunting to Sanchis, who said he learned to keep his chin up as an undergraduate at Santa Cruz's infamously liberal campus.

He wasn't politically involved when he entered school but became infuriated by the way students responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he said.

"They said we deserved it and it was our foreign policy that was bringing [the attacks about, and we shouldn't retaliate," he said.

His frustration moved him to act.

"I was like, 'Someone needs to stand up here,'" he said, and he founded Students for America, which invited patriotic speakers to campus.

He later realized many of his opinions, from nationalism to tax policy, allied with those of the Republican Party, he said.

So he started the UC Santa Cruz College Republicans -- to much outcry.

"There was a lot of backlash," and students asked if he were paid by the Republican Party to go to school there, he said with a laugh.

Any resistance encountered in Palo Alto is nothing compared to Santa Cruz, he said.

"I was in the belly of the beast. I was the underdog there," he said.

After college he stayed active, joining groups such as the San Francisco Young Republicans, South Peninsula Area Republican Coalition and others, although these days efforts for Giuliani dominate his schedule, he said.

A night in mid-January found him helping supervise a phone bank at the Stanford West apartments, when about seven volunteers came to make calls from the complex's wood-paneled clubhouse using cellular phones provided by the campaign.

One volunteer was Tessa Price, a Stanford University student who said she came to the clubhouse event after seeing Sanchis' pro-Giuliani table in the campus' well-frequented White Plaza.

Sitting in a bright-red Stanford sweater, Price, 19, described herself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

But Democratic student groups dominate campus discussion and, "I want to inform people about the other side," she said.

In the week following that night at the phone bank, she and fellow freshman Cameron Mullen started Stanford Students for Rudy Giuliani.

They set up a more permanent Giuliani table in White Plaza, began handing out fliers and even started a group on online social-networking site Facebook.

Her outpouring of effort is time-consuming but worthwhile, she said.

"It's a little stressful but as clichéd as it sounds, it's worth it. You really do have a sense of civic duty," she said.

For more information about the Feb. 5 primary election, visit http://smartvoter.org/ .

Canvassing on campus

Who can vote for whom

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by theo
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 29, 2008 at 1:23 pm

stanford students for rudy....
isn't that sweet?
He is such a kind and caring person-
a real neat guy-
it's great to see such vibrancy on the campus!
go rude boy!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2008 at 12:15 pm

If only other non-profits could get as much fervent support for their worthwhile endeavors.

I know many people to volunteer at food banks, clean up days, etc. But wonder if the people putting so much time and effort into politics actually help their communities in any real ways?


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