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From tacos to BBQ, meet Clinton's dream team

The Clinton campaign has dispatched the same team that won hard-fought victories in California and Texas to run the show North Carolina. But how will this undefeated "dream team" fare against even tougher odds in the Tar Heel State?
Image: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigns in Fayetteville, NC.
Sen. Hillary Clinton rallies the crowd during a campaign stop in Fayetteville, N.C. on March 27.Charles Dharapak / AP

In a college gymnasium draped with banners of past athletic victories, his warmup could easily be mistaken for a school pep rally.

"We are undefeated," roars Mike Trujillo, Sen. Hillary Clinton's North Carolina field director. "We do not lose."

Jabbing a pointed finger at his own blazer lapel, he punctuates his claim with a defiant grin. "I do not lose."

In a state where the stakes are high and the demographic pie charts are stacked against the New York senator, the Clinton campaign is hoping that he's right.

Trujillo's high-octane cheerleading is far from modest; He's fond of the phrase "kick butt" in his warmup act at campaign rallies. But he has a point. The team he refers to — made of up of himself, political director Miguel Espinoza, and state director Averell "Ace" Smith — hasn't lost yet.

Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Smith has none of Trujillo’s swagger. But his devastatingly effective opposition research for Clinton and for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in California has earned him the nickname “Doctor Death.”

Smith masterminded Clinton’s victories in California and Texas, two states where the New York senator faced fundraising deficits and see-sawing poll numbers. Her unanticipated victory in the Texas primary, in particular, was largely credited to Smith's ability to mobilize community leaders and deploy Bill Clinton with exhaustive precision.

In Texas, where nearly half of all voters in the Democratic primary cast their ballots before the March 4 primary day, the Clinton campaign’s relentless focus early voting kept her numbers high and her name in the news. The strategy, says Smith, was to turn audiences into a steady stream of early ballots that would keep Clinton afloat during Sen. Barack Obama’s initial surges of popularity there.

“What happened in Texas was that we were clearly behind early,” he says. “Our early voting pretty much allowed us to hold our own, and then we beat them pretty soundly on Election Day.”

To keep that steady stream coming, Smith’s staff cast lines all over the state to reel on-the-fence voters in to early polling places. In Odessa, for example, those boasting an “I Voted!” sticker were ushered to front-row seats at a rally, and the spicy smell of free tacos often wafted in the air at outdoor campaign events held within sniffing distance of polling stops.

And then there was Bill.

The campaign’s chief surrogate held over 50 rallies in Texas, sometimes as many as six or seven a day. During his stump speeches, the former president appeared — often on the flatbed of a pickup truck — speaking to thousands in an Abilene airport hangar or as few as a hundred in an El Paso shopping center. An early vote location was always close by, either in a strip mall or a civic center just out of earshot of the loudspeakers that pumped out Clinton’s rapid-fire argument for his wife.

Adapting the Lone Star strategy
Since the contest for North Carolina began in earnest, the fingerprints of Clinton’s Texas dream team has been noticeable. Her husband has already has done a whopping 14 campaign rallies in the state, visiting the same mix of Clinton strongholds and pockets of unconventional voters who could be swayed by the visiting popular ex-president.

The field team’s trademark incentives for campaign volunteers are evident too. Last weekend, they introduced a new cell phone technology that allows supporters to participate in an impromptu phone bank in exchange for choice seating during the former president’s rallies. The arrangement, the campaign estimates, yielded over 11,000 calls made on Hillary’s behalf in a single two-day swing.

And there are other familiar refrains from the Texas strategy. With as many as six events in a day, often in towns mere miles apart and with populations sometimes no larger than 30,000, fatigued reporters and pundits in North Carolina wonder aloud why the visits all fall within the range of a single major city’s television and radio coverage area. But by Smith’s calculation, picking campaign stops based on local coverage is old news.

“Thinking in terms of media markets is really kind of old-fashioned thinking at this point,” he argues. “Ironically, we’ve moved back to an age when just talking to people at rallies and having them talk to their friends and their relatives and their social networks has a much greater impact.”

With early voting starting today in North Carolina, the word-of-mouth strategy becomes all the more crucial.

Trujillo says that the campaign will host early vote events in almost every county in the state. And today Clinton’s campaign chairman and vociferous advocate Terry McAuliffe will be on hand to make his case to voters at several polling places.

In comparison to Texas, North Carolina’s election laws make the vision of an early push even easier to realize. In the Lone Star State, a campaign event utilizing a sound system must take place at least a thousand feet from polling places. North Carolina law only requires a distance of 50 feet.

But the biggest advantage for early vote promoters in North Carolina is also the most unpredictable. North Carolina’s new “one-stop” policy allows new voters to register and cast their ballot in a single trip, meaning that a curious passerby — if the inspiration of a surrogate or the urging of a volunteer moves them — can become a voter in a matter of minutes.

“Not only can you turn out your universe,” says Smith of the North Carolina system, “But you can expand your universe if you turn it out.”

The potential jackpot of early voting is no secret, though, and Smith will face a formidable challenger in his counterpart, Obama state director Craig Schirmer. Schirmer is a veteran of North Carolina politics who managed the Senate campaign of Erskine Bowles in 2002. “We are going to make an unprecedented, aggressive, all-out assault on the one-stop, early vote window,” he promises. “We have grassroots volunteers coming out of the woodwork to help.”

With polls that show Clinton down by double digits to Obama, who benefits from the state’s high concentration of students and African-Americans, the campaign is counting on Smith’s knack for seeking out new pockets of support. As in other states, registrations have skyrocketed, as has the number of Republican voters switching their party affiliation in order to vote in the May 6 Democratic primary.

State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett estimates that as many as a third of primary voters will vote early, and he notes that the ballooning group of “unaffiliateds,” who can vote in either the Republican or Democratic contest, render even the most educated projections chancy.

“You can throw all the historical stuff out the window this time,” he chuckles.

Smith agrees. As in Texas, other state contests like those in Pennsylvania and Indiana mean that North Carolina cannot be viewed in a vacuum, and no amount of number-crunching can account for the nuances of a state so unused to the glare of the presidential spotlight. “Our job is just to throw everything that we can at it,” he says.

One thing is certain, though: North Carolina’s house call from “Doctor Death” sent a clear signal to political operatives early this spring that polls would not dissuade Hillary Clinton from competing there.

That, says the data-crunching Smith, is because no spreadsheet can ever tell the whole truth. “You have to steep yourself in local knowledge,” he says of his lightning-fast moves from state to state. “If you just look at numbers, you never really get the flavor of it.”

Maybe that explains another noteworthy difference between the Clinton campaign’s efforts in Texas and the new push in the Tar Heel State: They’ve replaced the free tacos from Texas with good ol’ fashioned Carolina barbeque.