Atlanta — While Michael Dukakis and George Bush battle over the airwaves, a political ground war is being waged in places like Georgia. The struggle here is being fought by the foot soldiers of American politics - the volunteers, students, and a few paid campaign aides who keep the machinery of a presidential campaign whirring.
This is one-on-one politics at the grass roots. These are the partisans who distribute yard signs, stuff envelopes, make telephone calls, hand out fliers, and sign up new voters in shopping centers.
The latest reports, which show the Bush-Dukakis battle tightening in key battleground states such as California, New York, and Illinois, pump even more excitement into these field workers. They realize that a swing of only a few percentage points could throw a major state, with all its electoral votes, into the Republican or Democratic column.
Some volunteers work only a few hours a week. Others toil endless hours, live on hamburgers and soft drinks, and get little sleep. They often get scant appreciation, but they carry on - fueled by idealism and political zeal.
The nationwide field effort is immense, and largely unnoticed. While presidential candidates are surrounded by costly consultants and the glitterati of the electronic media, the foot soldiers do battle beyond the glow of the TV spotlights.
Yet their work can be crucial. In a close election, experienced politicians say, volunteer work can give a boost of 1 to 5 percent to a candidate - enough to provide the winning margin.
From the start, the Dukakis campaign put great emphasis on its field organization. It spent weeks last summer organizing it with the help of the national Democratic Party, and boasted that it had one of the best field operations in party history.
Vice-President Bush also has a smoothly operating field organization, though. Here in Georgia, his three-person staff has recruited about 500 volunteers, says Jay Morgan, the Bush campaign's Southern regional political director.
Already, those volunteers have put out 15,000 yard signs, with another 15,000 going up in the final week. They're manning 35 phone banks across the state with nearly 300 telephones, making thousands of calls per week to voters.
Governor Dukakis's team here appears to be even larger. Mike de Vegter, state campaign manager for Mr. Dukakis, won't disclose how many telephones he is operating. But he admits to having 35 offices across the state and more than 1,000 volunteers. They've already made over 200,000 calls to voters, and they keep the phones humming seven days a week.
Mr. de Vegter refuses to be daunted by the polls, which show Bush ahead in Georgia by eight points. He recalls that in 1986, Wyche Fowler, the Democratic nominee for the US Senate, trailed his Republican opponent by 17 points in the closing weeks, then went on to win.
``Democrats turned out to vote in that race, and country-club Republicans were too busy. We just try to keep our eyes focused on our goal at the end of the road,'' de Vegter says.
Democratic volunteers here are trying to make up for what they believe will be a last-minute TV blitz by the Bush forces in Georgia. De Vegter says he has information that the GOP will pour $350,000 into the state for ``supplemental TV'' to reinforce the national TV buy.
Despite polls showing Bush ahead here, de Vegter suspects that the GOP is nervous: ``If they think they have Georgia all sewed up, why are they pouring so much into this state.''
Both sides consider their phone banks to be the heart of their operations. Night after night, volunteers telephone voters to pinpoint who is for Bush, who is for Dukakis.
Dukakis volunteers mail literature to undecided voters, and ``thank you'' letters to supporters. The pamphlets sent to undecided voters feature Sen. Sam Nunn and other popular Democratic politicians speaking in favor of the ticket.
Bush volunteers are more aggressive. Their phone banks concentrate on the undecided voters. Mr. Morgan says:
``We are calling undecideds with a strong advocacy pitch. We're aggressive. We want volunteers to make those calls, we want them to argue and be very assertive.''
Democrats shun that approach. Their plan is to identify supporters, then follow up with calls on election day to make sure they get to the polls.
Particularly in black communities, Democrats will be providing cars, vans, and buses to carry voters to the polls.
Atop all their other efforts, the local campaign teams here run a surrogate speaking program. The Bush operation brought in nearly a dozen well-known speakers recently, such as former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. The Dukakis staff has recently concentrated on prominent local speakers, such as Gov. Joe Frank Harris.
Claibourne Darden, an Atlanta pollster who has seen many of these campaigns, says that in a close battle, ``the ground war can be the decisive factor.''
But Mr. Darden says the volunteer effort won't be able to help unless Dukakis can make this race closer. As he puts it:
``When the ball-bearing factory has been bombed out of existence, the trucks don't run'' - and if Dukakis can't gain ground quickly, all these telephone calls will be of ``no big value.''