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Bush campaign off to early start in state

Paul Peirce
| Sunday, March 28, 2004

There's no primary election race, and the Nov. 2 general election is more than seven months away, but the Bush-Cheney '04 re-election team in Pennsylvania has been running at full throttle for weeks.

Quietly, but efficiently, the Bush campaign has been signing up and personally training legions of volunteers to work for the president's re-election in Pennsylvania. The effort has enabled Republicans to gain a huge head start in the state on Democratic hopeful John Kerry, whose campaign has had to devote most of its resources to campaigning in other states to secure his party's nomination.

More than 12,000 state residents -- many of them completely new to politics -- have enlisted in the Bush campaign. Already, thousands of volunteers have been taught the fine art of community campaigning at special seminars conducted in community rooms, fire halls and hotel ballrooms in all corners of the state.

"The funny thing is ... it may be hard to believe ... but it's going to get even bigger and continue to grow as the election gets closer," said Kevin Madden, Bush campaign spokesman for the northeastern United States.

"What you see going on in Pennsylvania is also happening in West Virginia and Ohio ... just about everywhere. These are states that are all very important, and we believe we can win. We were very close to winning Pennsylvania in 2000, and our goal is to form the strongest, most comprehensive campaign organization there ever."

The organization machine operating so far ahead of an election has wowed even the most seasoned political observers.

"It's really unheard of the way it's been done, and I think it could really pay off in the end," said Cambria County Republican chairman Rob Gleason Jr.

The keen interest so far ahead of the election also has astounded Westmoreland County Republican chairwoman Debbie Irwin.

"I've gone to two of those grassroots campaign meetings locally, and I was amazed that there were over 100 people at each event. And what's really surprising is most of these people are really completely new to politics," Irwin said.

"Most sign up for the seminars via the Internet and attend these meetings to find out how they can help re-elect the president."

Madden said seminar participants are urged to bring along a few neighbors and friends.

"It's seven months before the election and, I mean, the people attending these training sessions are already so enthusiastic that it seems like it's only a month before the election," Irwin added.

A small but experienced Republican organization staff teaches most of the seminars. There are just seven "paid" Bush-Cheney re-election staffers working the state's 67 counties.

Vince Galko, former state director for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, is deputy executive director of Bush's state team. The state has been split into five regions, with a "political director" in charge of the campaign in each region.

Galko works out of Harrisburg with coalitions director Luke Bernstein, another former Santorum staffer, and communications director Andrew Beck. Galko also is teaming up with Chris Brennan, a New Jersey attorney and a Republican insider in that state, who is working as political director in the southeast region.

Locally, Kim Ward, of Hempfield Township, is political director of the southwestern Pennsylvania region. Ward is a member of the Republican state committee, a former Westmoreland County Republican chairwoman and a Hempfield Township supervisor.

Native New Yorker Nick Sinatra, who has ties to New York Gov. George Pataki, is political director of the state's northwest region. Another former Santorum assistant, Chris Walters, is political director of the central Pennsylvania region.

In the state's northeast region, Bob Grittman, a long-time area Republican, is political director.

Santorum serves as chairman of the state Bush-Cheney '04 leadership team. Serving as co-chairmen are David Girard-diCarlo, who is chairman of a large Philadelphia law firm; Blank Rome; and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter.

Madden explained that, during the campaign workshops, volunteers receive official party credentials and learn how to campaign door to door, campaign via telephone and bring more volunteers into the campaign. According to the campaign Web site, workers also are encouraged to write letters in support of Bush to the editors of local newspapers and to telephone "talk radio" programs to promote the president's team.

Irwin and Gleason also noted that volunteers learn the basics of voter registration, how to handle absentee ballots and how to arrange transportation to get potential voters to the polls.

Gleason also is director of the Catholic Coalition for Bush, while former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey is chairman of its business coalition.

Gleason caught the eye of state party leaders in 2002 by devising a campaign plan that enabled then-Attorney General Mike Fisher to carry heavily Democratic Cambria County in the race for governor. Although Democrats hold a 3-to-1 registration edge in that county, Fisher carried 56 percent of the vote versus 44 percent for Ed Rendell, who eventually won statewide.

Gleason believes the personalized "coalition" campaigns can work for Republicans this fall, too.

"We really worked very hard at it ... going door to door asking for votes in person. I think people rally around people, not particular causes," Gleason said.

Madden said using thousands of volunteers in Pennsylvania, instead of "paid" staff, is a blessing rather than a hindrance.

"Paid staffers do not win campaigns; volunteers win them, and that's why we've built an organization completely structured around and relying so heavily on volunteer support," Madden said.

The national campaign staff also is keeping in close touch with activities in Pennsylvania, as evidenced by the rebuffing of numerous requests for interviews with members of the state re-election campaign staff. Galko, Bernstein and Ward declined interviews, instead referring inquiries to the regional Bush campaign staffers.

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