The Republican nominating contest for President of the United States is all but sewn up — Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee are footnotes and with 256 GOP delegates at stake today, John McCain may have enough pledged delegates to have his party’s nomination in hand by morning. The Democratic contest, however, is still close and all-important primaries today in Texas and Ohio (and important-but-less-so elections in Vermont and my own home state of Rhode Island) could decide the fate of that party’s nominee. Yesterday I had a chance to talk with Isaac Garcia, CEO of Central Desktop, whose software is being used by the Obama campaign to manage field operations in Texas.

The biggest prize for the Democrats today is Texas, which has 193 pledged delegates at stake, and the winner of today’s contest, where polls have Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a dead heat, may be the one whose campaign has the best get out the vote effort. However, organizing a campaign across a state the size of Texas, both in terms of number of people and geographical size is a daunting task. There are 254 counties and over 8,000 voting precincts, and a population that falls into all different ethnic, economic, and age demographics.

The Obama campaign is using software from business intranet provider Central Desktop to manage “precinct captains” — volunteers who get out the vote and spread the campaign message in specific precincts across the state. The campaign started using the software during the run up to an earlier nominating contest in California — the nation’s most populous state. “The Web-based collaboration platform combined with a strong organized grass-roots effort, created unprecedented public involvement that is revitalizing politics in America,” said Patrick DeTemple, the California Data & Systems Manager for the Obama campaign. “Not since Bobby Kennedy has there been such an extensive Precinct Captain operation for a presidential candidate in California.”

Central Desktop is a wiki-based collaboration tool that competes with 37Signals’ Basecamp (to put it in some perspective). Though most users are business clients who utilize the software as a private intranet, the Obama campaign is using it to power a public facing wiki to organize information for precinct captains in Texas. According to Garcia, the campaign is using the software on their own without much input beyond basic support from Central Desktop — or in other words, the campaign has been savvy enough to figure out how to utilize an existing tool for a completely new use case.

In fact, Garcia told me that Central Desktop was actually unaware that the campaign had planned to use their software for additional states following California until they noticed an influx of traffic on their servers going to the campaign’s new Texas site. Further, according to Garcia, the idea to use collaboration software to manage precinct captains was actually something that bubbled up in the campaign from the grassroots volunteers who were out in the field.

That the Obama campaign is so tech savvy and so open to using social software is unsurprising. They have run one of the most comprehensive online campaigns in recent memory — perhaps ever — generally outperforming opponents on nearly every social network or social media site, and according to a recent post from Ning’s Marc Andreesen, Obama has long been very interested in social networking and how it can affect politics.

The specific appeal of Central Desktop’s wiki-based approach is that allows volunteers to shape the messaging and quickly collaborate with each other without the need to go through a webmaster. The Texas effort, some of which was cloned over from the previous California site, was literally launched a couple of weeks ago in mid-February.

In 2004, the Howard Dean campaign famously used Meetup.com to mobilize supporters. But Dean’s use of Meetup was mostly about bringing supporters together to share a common experience. It was not so much a focused and organized campaigning effort, as Obama’s use of Central Desktop’s software has been. Garcia was hesitant to say for sure, but he thinks Obama’s may be the first campaign to make heavy use of collaboration software to help manage on the ground organization (though, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul both utilized Salesforce.com in their campaigns).

Update: Jason Fried pinged us to let us know that the Obama campaign is actually using Basecamp as well. The new media team at the campaign’s national headquarters in Chicago (where 37Signals is based), for example, used Basecamp to collaborate while building BarackObama.com. Basecamp is also being used by some parts of the campaign in New York City to manage events.