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Iowa Democrats prepare for starring role in fall campaign

Updated at 4:30pm ET Iowa is crucial to President Barack Obama winning a second term and just in case the Iowa delegates at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., might forget that fact, even for a moment, an all-star cast of speakers is showing up at the Iowa delegation’s breakfasts this week to flatter them, exhort them and remind them of how important they are.

John Brecher / NBC News

Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker speaks to Iowa delegates at their breakfast event prior to the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Sept. 3, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Iowa delegates gave rousing welcomes to mayors Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., Monday morning at the delegation’s breakfast.

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Noting that he had worked as a union organizer for 25 years before being elected to the California legislature, Villaraigosa said Democrats’ grass roots organization is the key to victory. “We’re going to be knocking on doors, we’re going to be calling voters; we know that Iowa is critical to this election and I hope to visit.”

In fact, the Los Angeles mayor will be the keynote speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Oct. 20.  

Booker warned the delegates of the lack of fervor that cost Democrats the New Jersey governor’s race in 2009. “If we had the same kind of enthusiasm, the same kind of energy, the same kind of organizing, the same kind of voter turnout that we did in 2008, we would have easily won in 2009,” Booker said. “The point is very simple: it’s not about them, it is about us, it is about how well we organize, how much we go door to door.”

Booker mentioned to the Iowans that his great-grandparents moved to Iowa from Alabama and that his grandmother was born in Des Moines in 1918. Telling the delegates that the election has big consequences – such as who appoints the next Supreme Court justice – Booker again brought up his family roots in assessing the election’s impact: “What’s exciting to me is that just like my personal family history, it’s going to turn on the state of Iowa.”

John Brecher / NBC News

Sue Dvorsky, Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, listens to Newark Mayor Cory Booker speak to Iowa delegates at their breakfast event prior to the Democratic National Convention on Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Iowa is where it all began for Obama with his dramatic caucus win in 2008 and it might be where victory is decided on Nov. 6. The importance of the state’s six electoral votes was underscored again this week by the rival campaigns’ scheduling: Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan will be speaking at rallies in Adel and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday.

And Obama is heading back to Iowa the day after his acceptance speech to rally young voters at the University of Iowa – after just having campaigned in Sioux City and Urbandale on Saturday.

Iowa ranks sixth among the states in the amount of money being spent on TV ads by each side, behind Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, according to NBC ad tracking data. The Obama campaign and Democratic outside groups have spent $22 million in Iowa so far, compared to $24 million spent by the Romney campaign and GOP outside groups.

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Alluding to the enthusiasm gap that Booker warned against, delegate Dennis Roseman, a retired University of Iowa mathematics professor and an active and early Obama supporter in 2008, said that things today are different from four years ago when Obama won Iowa in the caucuses and again in November.

“Four years ago was very exciting, it was all very new, it was all about change and what’s possible,” Roseman said. “We didn’t have the depth of the economic problems that we are facing right now. Even though things are improving, people’s attitudes are somewhat negative, having suffered through a lot. So right now it’s a struggle, no doubt about it.”

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He added, “We’re doing really well in our part of the state and there’s a lot of enthusiasm – but we have a big state and we have to really fight hard to stave off either complacency or a certain amount of negativism.”

A big student vote for Obama is vital. In 2008, Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa, with a margin of more than 30,000 votes over Republican John McCain.

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Since Iowa is already a state with very high voter registration, Sue Dvorsky, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the Democrats concentrate on adding new voters by registering college and university students “which can’t happen until they get back (to school in September) so now that effort is full-blown.”

Obama’s Friday campaign event at the University of Iowa will focus on college students “because we know that’s where our new registrants are,” Dvorsky said.

Republicans point to the 28,000 increase in active GOP voter registrations since 2008, but Dvorsky explained this by pointing to competitive GOP intraparty battles which had spurred interest among Republicans. “They’ve had three consecutive primaries. They had a very, very vigorous gubernatorial primary in 2010 that we didn’t have, then they had the (presidential) caucuses with multiple candidates and multiple winners that we didn’t have. And then they had a record number of primaries against their own (state legislature) incumbents – from the Right.”

As for the Republican advantage in voter registration (as of August), Dvorsky said she anticipated that when the Iowa Secretary of State’s office releases new numbers on Tuesday “we will have bitten into that substantially.”

She added that Republicans greatly improved their voter turnout effort in 2010, for example, “their vote by mail went by about 100 percent.”

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But she portrays the Iowa GOP as divided among the Ron Paul forces, the Rick Santorum backers, and Mitt Romney’s supporters, calling it “a party that is still fairly fractured.”

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She also pointed to another motivation for Democrats to turn out on Election Day: the battle for control of the state Senate – the last line of defense for Democrats against legislation they oppose, since Gov. Terry Branstad is a Republican and the state House is Republican-controlled.

The Democrats now hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate. On Election Day, there will be 26 competitive state Senate elections.

“We believe we are in an existential position: we have (a) one seat (majority) in the Senate,” she said. “It must be retained. There is no option for us to fail.”

Asked about the Republicans’ great success in 2010 elections in Iowa and whether that’s a harbinger for this November, State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said, “You can point to 2010 and I can point to 2011 – last fall, a special election in a suburban district, Cedar Rapids, handpicked by the Republicans to pick up after appointing a Democratic state senator to the Iowa Utilities Board. They thought that was a seat they were pretty much guaranteed to get back” and create a tie in the state Senate.

But, Gronstal said, “We put together a great get-out-the-vote effort. We do that better than the Republicans in Iowa and we won that election handily in the end.”

Obama must rely on that same kind of get-out-the-vote effort on Nov. 6 to keep Iowa in his column.