The party took a few seats — not a failure by Rhode Island Republican Party standards, but hardly the General Assembly makeover that Carcieri needed to become a real force on Smith Hill.

The chief lesson of the campaign, McKay says: he relied too much on message, and not enough on grassroots organizing.

Now, as he gears up for another crack at Rhode Island's Democratic power structure, he is focused squarely on the ground game. And that means sharpening the single most important organizing tool for any party: its voter file.

The file is a sprawling database of registered voters: their political leanings, voting histories — do they turn out for every Town Council election or just the quadrennial presidential contest? — and increasingly, their tastes in magazines and coffee shops.

Indeed, the data-mining explosion of the last decade or so has made the voter file an exponentially more sophisticated tool, allowing for specifically tailored messages for, say, mothers with sons in the military or voters who score seven or higher on a 1-to-10 scale of environmental consciousness.

George W. Bush's file was considered the holy grail of American politics for years; a microtargeting monster. But Barack Obama and the Democrats surged ahead in the 2008 election.

Among the key figures in that surge: Steve Adler, a sharp-tongued Providence native, with no particular allegiance to the Democrats, who co-founded the Voter Activation Network (VAN) company in 2001 — running it out of his East Side basement until the electric bills for his 37 servers grew too large.

The strength of VAN's signature product, VoteBuilder, is its open-source, bottom-up orientation: political candidates from City Council to Congress feed voter information gleaned from door-knocking and telephone surveys into an ever-expanding and constantly updated Democratic National Committee database that can be diced and deployed in all manner of clever ways.

Catalist, a private company headed by former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, has taken this decentralized approach to its logical conclusion: building its own voter file, layering on commercial data on magazine subscriptions and the like, and opening it up to a wide range of Democratic-friendly labor unions, environmental advocates, and pro-choice organizations — including some in Rhode Island — that keep buttressing it with new information.

One distinct advantage for Catalist: it is, as a private entity, not subject to the campaign finance restrictions that weigh on the Democratic National Committee and other official party organs.

Republicans, frantic to catch up, are weighing a Catalist-like entity of their own, Data Trust, which would take the Republican National Committee's voter file, pile on commercial data, and swap voter information with increasingly powerful independent political committees like Karl Rove's Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, better known as Crossroads GPS.

But Data Trust is hardly the only effort of its kind on the right. Billionaire conservative brothers David and Charles Koch are building their own list, known as Themis. And Adler, who sold his half of VAN in 2005 and retreated to his solar- and vegetable-oil-powered compound deep in the woods of Saunderstown ("I don't play well with other children," he says), is pushing a new, VoteBuilder-like product — rVotes — in conservative circles.

His slogan, playing on his history with VoteBuilder: "The best Campaign and Grass Roots software in the world for conservatives. Don't believe us? Ask your opponent."

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