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Obama’s Dinner Donor Stunt Builds Grass Roots

As campaign stunts go, dinner with a presidential candidate appears to be a sure way to create die-hard supporters.

Two people whose $25 donations to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007 won them a chance to see him eat a steak say today that they still believe in the president, even though he hasn’t delivered on some of the promises he made to them that evening.

“Really, he hasn’t done anything to disappoint me,” Margaret Thomas-Jordan told Roll Call in a recent interview. The software engineer and mother of two was one of four people who won a fundraising contest to meet Obama four years ago.

The president’s re-election campaign deployed a similar tactic last month, giving donors a chance to meet Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden. “We’ll pay for your flight and the dinner — all you need to bring is your story and your ideas about how we can continue to make this a better country for all Americans,” Obama wrote in a June 15 email about the contest. The contest ended June 30, and the campaign has not yet announced the winners.

But it appears to have helped Obama cash in.

His campaign reported last week that it raised more than $47 million between April and June. In a video discussing the numbers, campaign manager Jim Messina told supporters that 552,000 people donated, more at this point in the process than in any previous campaign.

Still, Obama faces considerable challenges in convincing past supporters he’s fulfilled promises. Many liberals have complained that Obama is too willing to compromise.

Some 200,000 Obama donors and volunteers signed a pledge circulated by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee saying they would give neither time nor money to the president’s re-election if he cut entitlement programs.

But both Jordan and Haile Rivera, an activist in New York who also attended the dinner, said they still have the president’s back.

Four years ago, Jordan expressed concerns about the Iraq War and her husband’s impending deployment during the dinner. Obama assured her that he planned to wind down the war, implying her husband wouldn’t need to go. “According to my plan, we’re pulling combat troops out by that time,” Obama said.

But the fact that the war hasn’t ended, and that her husband had to serve his 15-month tour, hasn’t rattled Jordan’s support.

“Even with the wars that are going on, I feel like it was a great accomplishment with them getting Osama [bin Laden]. And I feel like if they’ve gotten so far with that, it would be a bad thing to abandon those initiatives,” she said.

Rivera admitted that he was “a little bit disappointed” that the president has not prioritized his campaign promise to give the millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally a path to citizenship. Like many supporters excited about the change Obama had promised on the campaign trail, Rivera said he thought the new administration has not moved fast enough, but he cut Obama some slack when “I started hearing about the problems that he inherited, that he had to clean up.”

Rivera has already signed up to volunteer for Obama’s campaign, as he did four years ago. His focus has been on recruiting Latino youth in his Bronx neighborhood.

“He will need help with the Latino vote,” Rivera said. But illustrating the difficulty of the task, Rivera said he spends a lot of his time explaining to disappointed supporters why immigration reform hasn’t passed and why deportations have risen. “Has he kept all the promises? Obviously not. That’s part of the challenge,” Rivera said.

Rivera worked at a food bank when he met Obama, and he said he continues to see middle-class families struggling to put food on the table. But he credited the administration with increasing federal grants for anti-poverty groups.

The dinner also had its lighter moments. Obama nudged Rivera to propose to his girlfriend — something Rivera has still not done four years later. Rivera and Jordan said they both left the dinner inspired — and committed to the Obama campaign. Jordan described it as “a life-changing experience” and has since started volunteering with her church and lending an extra hand to the spouses of troops deployed abroad. Rivera considered running for a city council seat in New York in 2008, but he put his own ambitions on hold to work full time for the Obama campaign.

The pair stayed in touch and have also been in contact with the two other guests from that memorable evening: Michael Griffith, a Nevada miner, and Christina Cheatham, a student from Georgia. Neither could be reached for this story.

“The campaign pretty much pulled me in, and after the dinner I felt like I needed to take it to a different level of commitment,” Rivera said.

Janie Lorber contributed to this report.

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