By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Barack Obama volunteer Marilynn Wadden rang more than a dozen doorbells in her first hour canvassing a tidy neighborhood here before stopping to take stock of her progress. Only a handful of voters were home, and, of them, only one agreed to have a ballot mailed to him so he can vote early. Two people said they supported the president but preferred to vote on Election Day. And another said he would back Mitt Romney.
"I wouldn't do this for pay. It'd be too discouraging," Wadden, a 70-year-old retired principal, said. She added that she works to re-elect the president "because in my heart I know how important this is."
If the race is close here and elsewhere, the outcome may come down to how well Obama volunteers like Wadden do their jobs — compelling everyone they can to go to the polls, especially those who are leaning Obama's way, but not a sure thing.
National and state polls taken before the first debate show Obama with a comfortable lead over Romney among Americans who are registered to vote. But the surveys also show Obama is locked in a tight race with the Republican among likely voters, a disparity that underscores the importance that turnout efforts will play in determining who wins the White House.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll, for instance, found Obama with a commanding lead, favored by 52 percent of Americans to just 37 percent for Romney. Yet among those most likely to vote, the race was statistically tied, with Obama supported by 47 percent of likely voters and Romney by 46 percent. In Florida, a recent Washington Post poll showed the president ahead by 9 percentage points among all registered voters but up by just 4 percentage points among likely voters.
Such gaps suggest that the president has a significant opportunity — if not the need — to expand his vote if his enormous volunteer corps can persuade registered voters who are leaning toward him but don't always make it to the polls to turn out en masse on Election Day. It also suggests that Republican-led efforts to enact state laws restricting early voting periods and requiring voters to produce IDs — critics contend that disenfranchises minorities who tend to vote Democratic — could be important in denying Obama a second term.
Enter Obama's get-out-the-vote operation.
"Everything could come down to just a few votes," says Joan Tozier, a 62-year-old retired teacher who spends weekends in Obama's Sioux City office and every day making calls to neighbors from home. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
Four years ago, the Democrat's campaign identified new voters, registered them to vote, and then got them to polls on Election Day or during early voting periods. The effort was credited with helping put states that traditionally went to Republicans into the Democratic column, and helping Obama win the White House. Since then, Democrats acknowledge that enthusiasm has waned some among those foot soldiers.
Still, even Republicans acknowledge that Obama has an advantage on the ground in most if not all of the most hotly contested battleground states. In Iowa alone, Obama has 67 offices to Romney's 13.
Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson insists that the Republican nominee's ground-game efforts in Iowa and elsewhere are keeping up with Obama's.
"We have an equal number of contacts on the ground," Beeson said, adding that observers should "take into account the quality of the contacts, the number of contacts, not just the staff and offices."
Republican officials say they have more than four times as many phone calls to Iowa voters at this point than they had in 2008, and knocked on 16 times more doors in Iowa than at this point in 2008. Even before Wednesday's debate, they claimed more than 1 million voter contacts — by mail, phone and doorbell — so far this year in Iowa.
Romney's newfound momentum after his strong debate performance also helps him nationally. Republican officials say they have seen floods of new visitors to offices, with the RNC-Romney headquarters in Orlando, Fla., giving out twice as many yard signs as any other day and volunteers waiting outside to get in to make phone calls. In Nevada, new faces were waiting to volunteer when aides unlocked the doors at 8 a.m. And staff in Virginia made a push for supporters to recruit new volunteers to capitalize on the new buzz.