MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Dale "Boomer" Ranney can get in Donald Trump's face like almost no one else.
She has nudged her way to the front of 21 of his rallies, passing up book after book, photo after photo for him to autograph, finding success some 66 times. He smiles at her in recognition now.
When she made a trip to Trump Tower in New York to be near him for his home state primary in April, he spotted her and told his security guards to let her into his victory party there later that day. A photo snapped that morning shows Ranney and her candidate grinning and giving the thumbs up. He's in his suit and red tie. She's in her sequined American flag vest and matching boots.
Ranney is not only a Trump superfan, she's also a forceful advocate and volunteer on behalf of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Since February, she has guided an ad hoc team of 50 volunteers who have made some 75,000 telephone calls to voters to preach the gospel of Trump.
The eclectic, unpaid group — she calls them the "Trump T-Birds," after her red Ford convertible — includes a cancer patient making calls from her bed and 13-year-old who spouts Trumpisms.
All candidates count on volunteers to make calls to voters, distribute literature and knock on doors. Few have inspired the kind of passionate dedication that the celebrity billionaire has. For a candidate just now beginning traditional fundraising and woefully behind in building a staff of paid field organizers, this volunteer network could be especially vital when he faces presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton this fall.
Ranney, a 62-year-old thrice-married, beach-loving retired industrial engineer, is perhaps Trump's most committed volunteer.
"I feel guilty anytime I'm not on the phone calling for him," Ranney said. "I'm not getting paid, but it's a personal responsibility I feel to get him in the White House."
She approaches her volunteer work much like Trump approaches his bid, speaking off the cuff with prospective voters rather than reading from scripts the campaign has uploaded to its computerized calling program. She uses social media to build a following and makes her own assignments rather than waiting for directions.
"I really think all of us volunteers kind of copy Donald," Ranney said. "It's natural, not rehearsed, kind of ad-libbed."
With the primary nomination locked up, Ranney is starting to organize voter registration drives, acting on her gut that Trump will inspire scores of people who have never voted to come out for him.
DIALING FOR DONALD
She wants to keep dialing up voters, too.
On the eve of the Indiana primary May 3, Ranney settled in at her home for another round of calls.
"Hi, I'm calling from the Trump campaign, and we'd like to know if you have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump," she said cheerily.
"Um, no I do not," the Indiana woman on the receiving end said, curtly but politely.
"Ok, well good luck, ma'am, and thank you very much," Ranney said, ending the call. "That was a no," she said, noting the same in the call system.
One call later, Ranney found a more welcome reception: "Oh, I'm gonna vote for him."
Later in the batch of calls, Ranney got to make her full Trump pitch. She'd reached a voter leaning toward Trump, but concerned about what exactly Trump's stance was on Planned Parenthood, a women's health clinic this particular anti-abortion-rights voter didn't much care for.
"Oh, he's pro-life," Ranney assured the woman. "The only thing about the Planned Parenthood he's for is the fact that it helps women, you know, with their health issues. Other than that he's against it ma'am."
The voter also mentioned the blitz of advertising she'd seen portraying Trump as sexist.
To this, Ranney said, "You know, there's one thing I will say about Mr. Trump, and that is that he is an equal-opportunity criticizer. So if he doesn't like someone, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. He's going to tell you what he thinks."
The call ended with Ranney feeling confident she'd found — maybe even helped convert — another Trump voter.
Ranney's T-Birds are a mix of ladies she knows in Myrtle Beach and Trump fans she's met on social media and in the front of the lines at rallies.
"I figure, if someone is dedicated enough to get in line at 3 a.m., they're dedicated enough to probably want to make some calls for Mr. Trump," she said.
There's Alice Ziriada, a Myrtle Beach friend, who has made more than 12,000 calls for Trump, often from her bed while laid up from chemotherapy to treat her cancer. She said she's loved making the calls, even if they don't always go so well. "No matter how mean they get on the phone with me, cussing, whatever, I just let them finish," she said.
There's Matt Lewandowski (no relation to Trump' campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski) in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a 68-year-old whom Ranney recruited through Facebook. He has made about 9,000 calls, hitting 300 in one day. Now he, in turn, helps find other volunteers. "I'm just one guy, but I hope I am helping with this process," he said.
And dropping the median age of the group, there's Zach Dodson, a 13-year-old seventh-grader in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Ranney met Zach and his mother, Chula, at a Trump rally, and they've become some of Trump's most avid photographers, sharing hundreds of rally shots on social media.
Chula Dodson said, somewhat apologetically, that she and her son had made only a few hundred phone calls apiece because she didn't want him too distracted from school. "I cannot explain how much my son loves Mr. Trump."
Zach, grabbing the phone, chimed it, "I like him because he's a businessman who has made a fortune. He can apply that to America."
He's adept at channeling the candidate himself. "For many decades now," said Zach, "the establishment has failed us miserably and they know it."
The rallies have served as more than a meeting point between Ranney and her volunteers. It's also the way she gets the swag that she thinks helps keep them motivated. All of those books and photos Ranney has Trump sign? She gives them to volunteers who are hitting milestone numbers of phone calls, an enticement to keep at it.
Trump frequently praises his volunteers on social media. "Without my amazing volunteers — this would not have been possible," he wrote on Instagram after winning the Indiana primary, essentially locking up the nomination.
REFORM PARTY ROOTS
There's a reason Ranney seems like she's done this before (she has) and that she seems to know Trump (she does).
Back in the 1990s, when she was Dale Barlow and living in Oklahoma, Ranney fell in political love with another billionaire businessman-turned-politician: Ross Perot. She volunteered for his two presidential campaigns and became an elected leader of the Reform Party he founded.
She said her volunteerism then showed her how many people in the country are reflexively opposed to trade deals as bad for U.S. workers. That's a major theme of Trump's campaign now, and part of why Ranney is so convinced that he can win.
Late in the decade, the party's highest elected official, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, tried to persuade Trump to run for president on the Reform ticket and pointed him toward Ranney for advice.
Ranney said she met with Trump at Trump Tower in December 1999, sharing with him her fears about factionalism within the party. Two months later, Trump wined and dined Ranney and other Reform officials at his Mar-A-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, although he soon after decided not to run.
Indeed, the Reform party spun into chaos after Ventura quit. Ranney also left the party — and politics altogether for 15 years.
But her dealings with Trump had made an impression, and she couldn't help but be delighted to see him descend his Trump Tower escalator last June and announce his bid as a Republican candidate for president.
"I believe in him," she said. "I've always believed in him."
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