By BETH FOUHY
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - Barack Obama is well-known for his ability to draw a large crowd. But 75,000? In Portland, Ore.? What gives?
The sea of people who converged by foot and boat in a park on the Willamette River Sunday was the largest rally for the Democratic presidential hopeful. Organizers credited the sunny spring day and enthusiasm for Obama in the well-educated, largely liberal city as key factors helping drive turnout.
Even so, the kind of eye-popping crowds Obama draws aren't ever left to chance. His campaign, already praised for its attention to the mechanics of grass-roots organizing, has taken the art of crowd building to an unprecedented level - using networking tools and old-fashioned word of mouth to draw an audience, which then helps expand the campaign's fundraising and organizational efforts.
"Rallies are very helpful for three major reasons: to provide momentum, allow a large number of people to be exposed to Barack, and create an organizational mechanism to win the election," deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said. He noted that they are usually put together with a specific purpose in mind, like a voter registration drive or an effort to get people to vote early in the states that allowed it.
To be sure, Obama strategists know all to well that big crowds don't always guarantee electoral success: He was thumped by Clinton in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary just days after he addressed a 35,0000-person rally in Philadelphia. He also lost the March 4 Texas primary after staging a series of arena-sized gatherings across that state.
Those losses and other concerns about how Obama was connecting with individual voters forced his campaign to stage smaller events in his schedule. They include "town hall" meetings in more intimate venues, to allow voters to question the Illinois senator and talk about issues. He's also participated in a series of economic roundtables where he sits with a small group of voters to speak with them one-on-one.
"Barack has been very instructive to us to say, 'Big rallies are great but it gives me no opportunity to hear from people in these states. Make sure I have a wide variety of options,"' Hildebrand said.
Still, arena-sized rallies continue to be Obama's coin of the realm - often dwarfing rival Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign events, even though her crowds are typically far larger than most politicians ever enjoy. And Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain has rarely seen an audience more than a fraction of the size of Obama's.
From the beginning, Obama organizers have built upon the campaign's sophisticated Internet presence and broad grass-roots fundraising network to help build its crowds.
After a city and venue are chosen for a rally, the campaign immediately sends an e-mail to its supporters in the area inviting them to attend. Organizers also engage social networking Web sites like Facebook and YouTube, as well as the campaign's own networking site, mybarackobama.com, to allow supporters to blog and alert friends and collages about the event.
The campaign also relies on more traditional methods to persuade people to attend events, such as radio ads and robocalls.
Organizers host public meetings where they ask supporters to carry out certain tasks, such as distributing flyers on college campuses or staffing phone banks. They also engage local TV and print reporters, who have taken an uncommonly high interest in the historic Democratic nominating contest.
Josh Earnest, who served as Obama's communications director in Iowa and Texas, recalled how the campaign had just 48 hours to draw attendees to a rally outside the Texas state capitol in Austin in February.
"Texas was a challenge because we didn't have much of an organizational structure in place," Earnest said, noting the campaign had relied on its volunteer base and "earned media" - shorthand for news coverage - to help publicize the event on short notice.
Among other things, Earnest said the campaign invited local TV morning shows to carry a live broadcast of the street in front of the capitol being closed off to traffic and the event stage being assembled.
In the end, some 20,000 people came out for the Austin rally.
Earnest is now helping to organize a major rally in Tampa, Fla., where Obama will be campaigning Wednesday. It will be held at the St. Pete Times Forum, which holds about 20,000 people.
After the rallies, the campaign captures as much information as they can about each attendee, including e-mail addresses, phone numbers and other data, to expand its supporter base. They are then invited to upcoming events and solicited for donations.
The system ran at peak efficiency early in the campaign, when some 67,000 people attended rallies with Obama and Oprah Winfrey in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The events were free, but everyone who showed up had to fill out a ticket stub with information on how the campaign could contact them.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)