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Election 2008

Campaigning to be a Delegate in Ohio

Mhari Saito

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Erin Sullivan Lally's campaign headquarters to become an Ohio delegate for Hillary Clinton is the living room of her Cleveland home. As two of her five kids play upstairs, Lally picks up toys and stray socks hiding under sofas and outlines her strategy:

"Free pizza and beer."

In Ohio, Democrats elect their slates of delegates at special gatherings nicknamed "delegate night." That will be on Jan. 3, and Lally plans to fill the house.

"Well, I'm inviting family and friends," she says, laughing. "I'm mailing them post cards. I've got a place where I'm going to have free food and drinks. And I've got a bus. I'm going to try and take as many of my supporters on a bus and take them to the vote to make sure they actually show up."

Lally admits she's taking her effort to an extreme. It helps that she's a former state legislator who now designs campaign literature. She figures she'll shell out several hundred dollars to try and win enough votes to go to the Democratic National Convention next summer.

"You don't have to spend money to do this," she says. "You just bring your family, friends and supporters to the vote which is simple. It's a phone call. I'm taking this the next level up because I really want to do this. I'm excited about the first woman president. That's a part of history and I want to be a part of history."

In the old days, the party convention was where the delegates would get together, debate issues in the platform and elect the party's nominee for president. These days, that nomination is usually wrapped up months before the convention. Delegates have to pay their own way and listen to lots of speeches.

I wondered what the big deal was. I went to see Deborah Burstion-Donbraye and asked, "What does a delegate do?"

The 2004 Ohio delegate and 2000 Electoral College voter burst out laughing.

Burstion-Donbraye went to the Republican National Convention in New York City four years ago. She spent $3,000 to stand on the convention floor and have her view of the stage blocked by former Ohio Governor Bob Taft's head. But she loved it. Burstion-Donbraye had been George W. Bush's press secretary back when he first ran for governor of Texas. And she wanted to represent him after she moved back to Ohio.

"It is what you want it to be," Burstion-Donbraye says. "It wasn't a ceremonial position for me. It was personal and it was a joy."

In Ohio, each Republican presidential candidate is working up a list of 88 delegates and 88 alternates. It's not an easy job because a lot of people are waiting to see which candidate pulls ahead. Ohio State Senator Kevin Coughlin is in charge of finding delegates for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

"Not too many people in Ohio have done a lot of deep thinking about this race," Coughlin says. "The candidates are working Iowa and New Hampshire and the early states. They are raising money in Ohio but quietly, so officials and party leaders have the luxury of not choosing sides yet."

And it's not just officials waiting it out. If you really want to go to your party's convention, you have to put all your money on one horse. Retired Marine Corps captain Philip DiBianca has been agonizing for weeks over his delegate application for the Democratic Party.

"The idealist in me would like to see someone like Joe Biden," DiBianca says about the Democratic senator from Delaware.

"But I want to get to the convention," DiBianca says, turning and looking at some papers stacked neatly on a bookcase in his living room. "I've got the forms right there all filled out. The only thing blank is the line. I'll probably put Hilary Clinton," DiBianca says, laughing.

The problem for DiBianca is that he's never been to a convention before. He's a newcomer to the local political scene and he's 60.

"If your guy wins the primary then you go," DiBianca says. "If the other guy wins, you don't. So I'm trying to pick the guy who is going to go. Time's short. If I were younger I'd be more idealistic. I'd say, 'I got 40 more shots at this.' But I've only got two or three left."

Maybe Di Bianca needs to worry less about filling out his application and more about free pizza and beer. Erin Sullivan Lally is already lining up babysitters for her voters and finishing up her mailing.

"Save the date: Thursday, January 3. Stick this up on your fridge!" says Lally, reading a neatly printed reminder card inked in green letters. "From 4:00 to 5:30 pm, we've got free pizza and beer. Parking's in the back."

More stories from our Election 2008 series

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