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Obama plans big effort in rural America, but campaign is different from 2008

By JERRY HAGSTROM

CHICAGO — When President Barack Obama traveled through Iowa last week to campaign for re-election, he was backed up by an agricultural and rural campaign headquarters staff here that is dedicated to repeating his 2008 electoral performance in the heartland, but with different personnel and without the lobbyists who helped him in 2008.

Obama did better in rural America than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton. That didn’t mean that he won in the rural areas, but that in states such as Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania he increased rural Democratic turnout or held down the rural Republican vote so that large Democratic majorities in the cities and suburbs could deliver those states for him.

Obama performed well in rural areas partly because the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., opposed ethanol and the 2008 farm bill, while his campaign took the attitude that rural areas were so Republican that McCain did not have to devote much attention to them.

During a tour of the Obama campaign headquarters here on August 9, officials said they are determined to get out a message that the Obama administration has lived up to its 2008 campaign promise to strengthen rural communities, and that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are intent on “gutting rural American economic security.”

A campaign official acknowledged that the Democrats’ loss of the House in 2010 included many rural seats, but he said the campaign believes that voters view a presidential election differently.

The Obama headquarters operation is impressive in its size and complexity, located on the floor of an upscale office building near Michigan Avenue. (The address is not a secret but the campaign does not publicize it for security reasons.)

Several hundred staffers could be seen huddled in front of their computers, working on everything from “rapid response” messages in reaction to Romney statements to fundraising, while a smaller number of senior citizens staffed phone banks.

The campaign also has rural field offices in all 50 states, with a particular emphasis on the battleground states of New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. Many staffers working in the headquarters office will move to field offices as Election Day nears, officials said.

But Obama campaign officials also noted that the re-election campaign is organized differently from the 2008 campaign, when David Lazarus, a former aide to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was in charge of agriculture and rural policy, and Marshall Matz, a Washington lawyer-lobbyist and Dallas Tonsager, then a member of the Farm Credit Administration board, headed a 60-member private sector policy advisory group composed of farm leaders and lobbyists.

This year, the Obama campaign is leaving all policy in the hands of the Cabinet officers and the White House, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is filling the roles of Lazarus and Matz. The re-election campaign is “an inherently different kind of ball game," the campaign official said.

Lazarus, who worked in Vilsack’s office for a while and then at the White House, is now a student at Stanford Law School, and Tonsager is serving as Agriculture undersecretary for rural development. Matz, while still close enough to the White House to arrange meetings for his clients, is, like other registered federal lobbyists, banned from a formal role in the campaign.

“Marshall does a great job" and "has turned good people our way,” but he is “not intimately involved” and “not acting as an adviser to the campaign in any capacity,” a campaign official said.

Obama has had a policy of not allowing registered federal lobbyists to work in his administration, and that policy extends to the campaign.

“We have a strict policy against registered federal lobbyists working for the campaign, donating or serving in an official advisory capacity,” the campaign official said.

“It is absolutely true,” Matz said in an email. “There is a very different campaign structure in 2012, as there is an administration available to establish policy for the president. Secretary Vilsack is an extraordinary Agriculture secretary and policy leader for those of us who care about agriculture and rural America.”

While the Cabinet officers are in charge of policy matters, the campaign does have a policy shop headed by James Kvaal, a former White House and Education Department official, to make sure the messages — positive and negative — get out.

Obama had an unusually strong press operation in rural America in 2008 and between the White House and the campaign, it is probably be stronger in 2012.

Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally considered the rural press not worth the effort, but Lazarus convinced Shin Inouye, a young press secretary on the 2008 campaign, to reach out to rural reporters.

When Obama took office, Inouye joined the White House communications office, where he convinced higher-ups to allow him to make the agricultural and rural press part of his mandate.

Inouye remains in that position in the White House. On the campaign staff, the rural press is being handled this year by Adam Fetcher, who was an organizer for Obama in Florida in 2008 and worked as a press officer at the Interior Department before joining the 2012 campaign.