JOHNSTON, Iowa -- In the corner of a Panera Bread café, five campaign volunteers are hard at work, dialing likely caucus-goers and urging them to turn out on Tuesday.
These folks aren't calling on behalf of Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann or any of the other Republican primary candidates participating in the nation's first nominating contest. Their candidate is President Obama. And even though Obama is an incumbent running unopposed, Democrats are using Tuesday's caucus as a test run to prepare for the 2012 general election.
"No matter what happens on Jan. 3, on Jan. 4 we will have the strongest campaign infrastructure in place, no question about that,'' said John Kraus, a spokesman for the campaign in Iowa. "All the Republicans will leave town for New Hampshire and we'll still be here.''
In this battleground state won by Obama in 2008, Democrats are eager to capitalize on what's left of their groundwork and to take advantage of the less robust organizing efforts by the Republican candidates this year.The GOP campaigns have opened fewer offices, dispatched smaller staffs, and invested less money than their predecessors.
Since September, the Obama campaign has opened eight offices across the state and claims to have held 50 house parties for caucus volunteers and made more than 350,000 phone calls. Still, GOP leaders are confident that a referendum on an incumbent president in a woeful economy will go their way here and in other swing states.
"Over the next 10 months, Team Obama will attempt to ignore his record and offer some alternative justification for re-election. And each time they do, they are tacitly admitting that the president has failed,'' said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, in a memo describing the party's outlook for 2012.
For months, Iowa has been awash in anti-Obama rhetoric, as the Republican primary candidates condemn the president's leadership in their stump speeches and in ads produced by their campaigns and their allies. "He has taken a pounding here, and the Obama campaign has to push back,'' said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "The party in power always makes an effort to turn people out to the caucus, and it's smart if Obama is trying to do more than has been done in the past.''
At Panera on Friday afternoon, the phone bank's tools amounted to lists of potential supporters and personal cell phones. Pat Walters, the "neighborhood team leader,'' planned to treat himself to a baguette and a bowl of creamy tomato soup after a few hours' work.
The 60-year-old insurance claims agent has helped organize phone banks at the café roughly once a week since April. He urged "Carol'' to call back if she needs a ride to the caucus meeting at Johnston High School on Tuesday. "Bring the kids,'' he begged another reluctant caucus-goer.
Another volunteer, 68-year-old retiree Darlene Coombs, said she's getting good feedback about Obama's first term. "Sometimes people are a little disappointed that more wasn't accomplished, but they understand the major Republican roadblocks. It's been encouraging,'' she said, before picking up her cell phone and trying to convince more voters to show up Tuesday. Even though the winner is predetermined, Democrats hope to send a message.