James Dillon, a onetime Republican activist who grew disgusted with politics, was so inspired by Barack Obama's candidacy that he joined the campaign's massive volunteer army, hosting house parties and recruiting supporters.
But beyond influencing the November election, Dillon thought he was joining a new political movement that would be mobilized for big goals -- to end poverty or help distressed homeowners, or maybe end the U.S. reliance on oil.
So Dillon, a Florida real estate developer, was discouraged by the suggestion that arrived by e-mail last week from Obama's campaign manager: "Excited about the much anticipated first dog?" it read, referring to the Obama daughters' quest for a new puppy. "Support your local animal shelter to give animals in your area a chance."
Amid Obama's transition to power, a spirited and often secretive debate has broken out among top campaign staff members over how to refashion the broad network of motivated volunteers into a force that can help Obama govern.
With 13 million e-mail addresses, hundreds of trained field organizers and tens of thousands of neighborhood coordinators and phone bank volunteers, the network has become one of the most valuable assets in politics, and Obama's team may choose to deploy it to elect other Democratic officials, or to lobby Congress for his toughest legislative goals, or even to apply pressure on local and state policymakers across the country.
This weekend, hundreds of field staffers and some key volunteers are planning a marathon closed-door summit at a Chicago hotel to begin negotiating details of what the network might look like when Obama takes office in January. A group of field organizers from battleground states has been enlisted to draw up a plan.
Among the questions to be sorted out by Obama's aides: Who will lead the network, whether it will become part of the Democratic Party infrastructure, and whether it should focus on local service projects or more lofty national goals.
Some details have come into focus, according to sources familiar with the internal deliberations. The Obama camp is giving serious consideration to forming a not-for-profit or political-action organization to house the grass-roots machinery. Remaining separate from the Democratic Party might avoid alienating independents and Republicans who backed Obama.
It is not clear what form such an organization would take, how it would raise money and how direct a relationship it could have with the White House.
Darlene Carter, a Tampa-area schoolteacher and Obama campaign volunteer who is hosting a house party this month, said the network should be nonpartisan. She intends to have Republicans attend the event at her home.
"We're looking for a change, and Obama himself has said that it's not about party," she said.
Several field organizers and others familiar with the deliberations said they were optimistic that, over time, the network would be successful.
"There is a lot of curiosity and even some anxiety around what's going to happen," said one organizer, who requested anonymity due to the campaign's restrictions on talking to the media. "But I think at least the organizers understand that this is going to take a little bit of time."
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