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Obama's happy band put their faith in floating voters

At one of Barack Obama's all-volunteer California campaign offices, nestled between the gyms and the juice bars of Venice Beach, someone has posted several copies of a recent Los Angeles Times poll.

Ostensibly, the poll holds nothing but bad news: Senator Obama trailing Hillary Clinton by 11 points in the Golden State. (A more recent poll, taken before the big Obama win in South Carolina over the weekend, puts him a staggering 17 points behind.) But that's not what the campaigner wanted to draw everyone's attention to.

Rather, he circled the 12 per cent of eligible voters who said they hadn't made up their minds. And he scrawled next to it: "The undecided vote is critical!"

Such is the indomitable spirit among the staffers and volunteers of the Obama campaign, who remain remarkably upbeat in the face of daunting odds. The polls have them trailing not only in California but in the other big Super Tuesday states, including New York and New Jersey.

They are optimistic, though, because they feel they have a secret weapon: the sheer passion and commitment of the thousands of people who are investing their time and energy, free of charge, in talking to friends and neighbours and reaching carefully targeted voters one at a time in mass phone-banking efforts. "Most of us don't look at the polls," said one volunteer, a doctoral student in physics called James Hansen. "This is about establishing personal relationships... Without a relationship, there's no impetus for people to go out and vote."

The idealism of Senator Obama's grassroots operation is very much of a piece with the inspirational rhetoric of his campaign speeches. But it also has some real muscle behind it. The campaign estimates it has conducted one-on-one conversations with about a million voters in California, including 200,000 last Saturday alone, and hopes to reach hundreds of thousands more before next Tuesday.

It has adopted many of the organising tools pioneered by Howard Dean's campaign four years ago – using the internet both to spread the word and empower the volunteers – while also learning from Mr Dean's mistakes. The Dean campaign relied heavily, in states such as Iowa, on out-of-town volunteers with no local knowledge or network; the Obama campaign, by contrast, has made sure it has active volunteers on the ground in as many places as possible.

Since Mr Obama has tens of millions more dollars to play with than Mr Dean ever had, everything is on a much grander scale this time. "Obama is Dean on steroids," Mr Dean's 2004 campaign manager in California, Rick Jacobs, said.

California, with its 36 million population and powerhouse economy, is the biggest electoral prize in both the primary and the general election but presents a tough challenge to any political candidate. It is usually considered too big for the sort of close, personal campaigning typical in Iowa or New Hampshire.

No candidate of either party is bothering with more than a smattering of appearances apart from tonight's televised debate.

Mrs Clinton is conducting a classic California campaign – rounding up high-profile endorsements from political leaders, unions and public interest groups, and bombarding the airwaves with adverts.

The Obama camp is trying something the Clintonites regard as unworkable, if not downright crazy – working the grassroots networks for all they are worth, in a timespan so telescoped it is well-nigh ridiculous. Eric Garcetti, a co-chair of Obama's California campaign with extensive experience of grassroots organising in Los Angeles, acknowledged that field operations don't usually yield more than one or two percentage points for a candidate. He hoped, though, that the sheer scale of the operation – nine statewide offices, and thousands of volunteers working their hearts out – would yield more like four to six points.

It seems the gap with Senator Clinton has started to close – more thanks to the South Carolina result and the high-profile endorsement of Ted Kennedy than the ground campaign.

Mr Garcetti acknowledged that victory in California was a tall order, but that falling short by just five points, say, would be more than enough to keep the race going beyond Super Tuesday thanks to the mostly proportional allocation of delegates.

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