Doorbell duel for votes

By JAMES DAO

The New York Times

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Every weekend, Gary Davis folds his 6-foot-5-inch frame into a black pickup, the one with the license plates that say, "THE NRA," and rides like some latter-day Paul Revere to local gun shows, gun shops and shooting ranges bearing this alarm: Vice President Al Gore and his Democratic allies are coming, and they want to take away your guns.

Davis, a bus driver, is not a registered Republican, but he is prepared to devote every spare hour to helping Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and other Republicans because that is what his true political party, the National Rifle Association, wants.

Davis is one of thousands of infantrymen from a host of independent groups massing for what could be one of the largest, most bruising and expensive battles in recent history to get out the vote for the presidential election.

With the race too close to call, those groups — including the rifle association, evangelical churches, labor unions, the anti-abortion lobby and environmentalists — are mobilizing their members to make phone calls, knock on doors, distribute leaflets and post yard signs for their chosen candidates.

While the candidates duel politely over plans for prescription drug benefits and targeted tax cuts, the independent groups hammer at emotional issues like guns and abortion that are deeply important to significant slices of the electorate. And they are motivating those voters by drawing much sharper distinctions between the candidates than the candidates are willing to draw themselves.

"Grass-roots organizing will be critical this year," said Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University who has studied voter mobilization. "There are razor-thin margins in several key states. And any number of these states could be won by just a percentage point or two."

The efforts of grass-roots groups come on top of the more than $100 million the two major parties intend to spend on letters, glossy fliers, phone banks, bumper stickers, billboards, and radio and television advertisements to turn out their core voters in closely contested states, including Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Florida.

But the brunt of the shoe-leather work is being left to independent groups, which, in this campaign season when there are no great crises or burning issues to fire up voters, may have a greater impact on Election Day than ever, analysts say.

"Grass-roots organizations have always been a more powerful force than money," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonprofit group. "And that’s more true now than ever, because more of our politics is organized around these outside groups."

The independent groups are using some of the toughest oratory in this otherwise relatively tame campaign. At get-out-the-vote rallies in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia, for example, Charlton Heston, the president of National Rifle Association, has called this the most important election "since the Civil War" and said that Gore would appoint Supreme Court justices who will "hammer your gun rights into oblivion." He even suggested that a "lynching mob" might be the best response to Gore’s gun-control fervor.

Other groups are also resorting to attacks on their opponents and their ideas. Union organizers are distributing leaflets that accuse Bush of trying to take away union pensions in Texas. Abortion opponents have been carrying huge photographs of bloody aborted fetuses to Democratic rallies. And abortion-rights advocates are mailing glossy fliers that state, "If Bush decides, legal abortion could be banned and women will again die in dangerous back-alley abortions."

Fear, said Tess Fields, a political organizer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League in Missouri, is an essential mobilizing tool for many independent groups.

"Our voters don’t feel threatened yet," Fields said. "The Christian Coalition people, after eight years of a pro-choice president, already do."

The national office of the AFL-CIO has created a Web site for its organizers to mass-produce customized fliers that compare Gore and Bush on major issues. The site allows union locals to type in messages from their leaders, with their logos. The four-color fliers are then printed by the national office and bulk-mailed within a day.

Though slick television commercials are also part of the union effort, AFL-CIO leaders, with political strategists in many other groups, said they have come to view television as an inefficient and expensive way to reach voters.

As a result, many unions and other independent groups are relying more heavily this year on the kind of old-fashioned, person-to-person political canvassing that seemed to have gone the way of the rotary phone just an election or two ago.

"It will be different than ‘96," said Alice Germond, executive vice president for National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which is supporting Gore. "We discovered that direct mobilization works, while ad campaigns often weren’t helpful."

The daughter of a Christian Coalition leader in Georgia, Fields, 31, works out of a cramped St. Louis office where five full-time workers wearing buttons that say, "It’s the Supreme Court, Stupid!" pound out e-mail alerts, address leaflets and organize volunteers for phone banks.

"If we do everything to the best of our ability, choice could win the White House, NARAL could win the White House," she tells them.

Other groups aligned with Gore have smaller operations here. The Sierra Club is sending voter guides to 100,000 people in Missouri to remind them of "all the bad things George W. Bush is for," from drilling in the Arctic wilderness and logging in national forests, said Daniel Weiss, the group’s political director.

And Handgun Control Inc., the anti-gun group, has been organizing religious groups, students and mothers to go door-to-door in centrist Republican suburbs around St. Louis distributing literature that shows the contrasting views of Gore and Bush on gun control.

On the other side, the Republicans are counting heavily on the Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition to mobilize conservative voters. Both have large networks of churches, which often provide some of the most committed campaign workers.

Deborah Schilling, a 19-year-old from Kansas City, is one. A part-time cashier at a Montgomery Ward’s store, she attended her first anti-abortion protest when she was 5. Now she spends 15 hours a week at the local Republican Party headquarters, stuffing envelopes and working phone banks. "Abortion is basically the main reason I’m involved," Schilling said.

The church networks also provide a ready-made system for groups like the Christian Coalition to distribute scorecards that rate candidates on issues ranging from missile defense to tax cuts to financing for the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as abortion. The group intends to distribute a million such report cards in Missouri, officials said.

The National Rifle Association has posted "Vote Freedom First" billboards around Missouri. Heston’s voice can be heard on radio advertisements running in several cities that urge gun owners to vote. And the group’s headquarters in Virginia has mailed a barrage of letters to members praising Bush as a "staunch firearms-rights advocate" and accusing Gore of wanting to "ban guns in America."

But the backbone of the group’s political organizing lies in its local affiliates, like the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance. At a recent meeting in a law office outside Kansas City, group members discussed plans to distribute literature at gun shows and shops, drive members to the polls and reach out to rural evangelical churches.

"Our biggest problem is convincing our people to vote because our guys keep looking for perfect candidates," said Kevin Jamison, one of the group’s leaders. So how do you convince them? "Scare the hell out of them," he replied.

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