Will visits boost numbers?

Democrats got their chance Saturday night. Now comes the Republicans' turn.

York County's political parties will have welcomed two of their biggest stars within a five-day span, with Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama in town for a rally last weekend and GOP counterpart Rudy Giuliani speaking at a fundraiser tonight.

For each county organization, the visits offer key opportunities to recruit members and expand the traditional base of activists.

Though presidential campaign stops will come to an abrupt end after the January primaries, both parties hope the visits deliver a lasting impact that swells membership rolls, spurs donations and, most importantly, influences future elections.

"We don't get these all the time, where there's so much excitement in both parties," said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University. "If they (voters) actually get some sort of personal contact, they are much more likely to get out and vote. That tends to be the real trick for voter turnout, more so than campaign ads."

New faces, untapped potential

When Obama campaign staffers pored over the database of registered York County Democrats in planning their rally, they found it hadn't been updated in a number of years.

Now, Democrats believe the file will double in size because each person who signed up for a ticket was asked to give home and e-mail addresses. The audience of more than 2,000 included hundreds who haven't gotten involved in politics in the past.

"When the presidential primaries are over, guess where all those names will come to?" said Jim Watkins, chairman of the York County Democrats. "They will be shared with us. So, we've got new folks in our database who are potentially active people in the party."

It's significant progress for a party well outnumbered by Republicans but still looking to be a player on the statewide stage.

"Now with the information that's available, we can identify those groups most likely to support a Democratic candidate and make sure they get the word," said Pat Caulkins, a retired Winthrop University math professor who now tracks voter data for the Democrats.

Giuliani event to bolster GOP's spending power

On the Republican side, Giuliani's visit is more about raising money so the local party can expand its reach.

Between 230 and 250 people are expected at the dinner event, anticipated to raise between $12,000 and $15,000. That money will be spent largely on two things: supporting local and state candidates next year and opening a campaign headquarters by the spring, said County Chairman Glenn McCall.

"We've always had a little money, but we've never really focused a lot on it," said McCall, a vice president at Bank of America.

Since taking over as chairman this year, McCall has sought to make the party more inclusive, a natural priority for one of the first black county GOP chiefs in state history.

McCall expects Republicans to contend in primaries for almost every available seat next year, including those on the York County Council. On another front, he'll meet with the local NAACP to figure out where the party can add its voice to downtown issues, from crime prevention to revitalization efforts.

"Glenn is doing an excellent job in getting the common sense conservative issues out," said former Chairman Hamp Atkins. "It's been going on a long time, but as the middle class grows, there are more and more people open to the Republican Party. You have to do it one person at a time. It takes money to get out there."

Both parties can credit former White House political adviser Karl Rove for turning voter outreach into a science. Rove developed microtargeting, an approach that gets more people to the polls by targeting them on issues important to their areas.

The approach relies on direct mail, mass e-mails and phone banks, the kinds of tools each party will use as the primaries draw closer.

"It's making you realize your one vote does matter," said Vinson, the political scientist. "There's something to be said for people caring about what you think."