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Obama sets up GF office

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign opened an office Tuesday evening in Grand Forks, displaying a kind of political muscle never seen in these parts.

Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign opened an office Tuesday evening in Grand Forks, displaying a kind of political muscle never seen in these parts.

The Obama campaign soon will have 50 paid staff workers across the state, a local party leader said. An Obama office opened last week in Bismarck. One will open today in Fargo and one in Minot next Tuesday. More offices will open later, Obama staffers said.

It's enough to make veteran Democratic party activist and union official -- and longtime Grand Forks County Commissioner -- Arvin Kvasager shake his head. He's never seen a presidential campaign of either party spend this kind of money in North Dakota, Kvasager said Tuesday in the new Obama office.

And he's got some perspective.

His first presidential campaign was hustling for Harry Truman in 1948, Kvasager said. He went to bed after his night shift job thinking Truman had lost to Republican John Dewey, only to be awakened by his new bride early at noon with the news, "Truman won!"

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But Truman didn't win North Dakota, and no Democratic presidential candidate has, since FDR in 1936, save LBJ in 1964, Kvasager said.

Shaking his head in amazement over the number of young people crowding into the small campaign office Tuesday night on Gateway Drive, Kvasager said he's pretty confident North Dakota might go from red to blue in November.

"I'm awed by the enthusiasm," he said looking around at volunteers signing up.

70 celebrants

About 70 people celebrated the Obama campaign's new office in the small strip mall adjoining Happy Harry's liquor store on Gateway. Happy Harry's Plaza, where the new Obama office is located, is owned by Hal Gershman, City Council president, a longtime Democratic activist and one of the state's biggest donors to Democrats.

Mac Schneider, former UND footballer and now the Democratic candidate for the state Senate from District 42 in Grand Forks, greeted the Obama fans, many who signed up to volunteer on his campaign. A recent Rasmussen poll showed Obama running neck-and-neck with Republican Sen. John McCain in North Dakota as of July 10, a big change from the typical big Republican margins of victory in presidential elections in the state.

It reminds him of his excitement the first time he got into a Sioux football game, said Schneider, a backup quarterback.

"For the first time since 1964, North Dakota is in the game, big-time," he told the applauding activists.

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Tight ship

The detailed, intense organization of the Chicago-based Obama campaign reminds Kvasager of his union organizing days. It is a pretty tight ship for normally informal North Dakota politics: the top staff member at the office opening Tuesday said none of the staff could comment to the news media; only Chicago-based leaders could speak for the campaign.

So far, the McCain campaign has a much smaller footprint in the state: no offices or paid staff or volunteer network yet, said Gary Emineth, chairman of the state's Republican Party.

"The Obama campaign is spending a lot more money," Emineth said. "There's no question he thinks he can win the state."

He says he thinks McCain will win the state, but that it won't be a cake walk.

Emineth was in Washington last week meeting with national party leaders, and he warned them against counting their chickens in North Dakota too early.

"I made it clear that Barack Obama is very serious about trying to win North Dakota, and I said that at the end of the day, if you don't think so, if you take it for granted, you might be surprised."

Emineth said in one sense he welcomes attention paid to Obama's campaign because it will show how "out of touch he is with North Dakota voters."

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May come again

Obama has visited North Dakota twice, in Grand Forks and Fargo, and may very well come again, Schneider said.

McCain hasn't, yet, but the state party keeps the invitation out there, Emineth said.

Tom Steward, spokesman for the McCain campaign's regional headquarters in St. Paul that covers several states, including North Dakota, sent the Herald this statement.

"We're going to be working closely with grassroots Republicans across North Dakota in opening up coordinated victory offices in the near future.

"This week in Iraq, Barack Obama has reminded North Dakota voters once again why he's so out of step with their views, whether it's refusing to acknowledge the success of the surge, undermining our second amendment rights or raising taxes on small businesses. Unlike his opponent, John McCain has always put his country before politics, and he has a record of supporting lower taxes, opposing wasteful earmarks and pork-barrel spending and working across party lines. Clearly, Grand Forks will be a key component in our statewide campaign as Senator McCain shares his message of reform, prosperity and peace."

Sharp comment

The difference in media attention to the two campaigns has drawn sharp comment from McCain this week. His letter to the New York Times in response to a commentary by Obama published by the Times was turned down by Times editors, clearly showing bias, McCain said.

In another stark contrast, only one reporter and one photographer were on hand to meet McCain on Monday night as his plane landed in Manchester, N.H. Meanwhile, dozens of journalists are riding on Obama's jumbo jet, and the three major TV news anchors are along for the ride during Obama's tour of the Middle East and Europe.

The spending so far in North Dakota roughly reflects the general campaign of both candidates.

Last week, the Obama campaign reported to federal officials it had raised $52 million in June alone, more than twice the $21 million McCain raised. The Obama campaign has $72 million on hand to spend, McCain $27 million, according to news reports.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com

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