DES MOINES, IOWA — The last time Sam Gerace volunteered for a political campaign was in 1964, and the politician was Barry Goldwater. But on Friday the retired lawyer and two friends piled into his blue Volvo in Pittsburgh and drove halfway across the country, to campaign door to door for Howard Dean.
Alexi Bonifield showed up in Iowa with a similar sense of resolve, but by a different route: She sold off all her belongings, including her car, gave up her rented apartment in Nevada City, Calif., and boarded a "peace train," traveling with 35 other volunteers for Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
And Gary Erwin, an aluminum smelter from Howsville, Ky., is using five vacation days to canvass Des Moines homes for Rep. Dick Gephardt. "This election is so important to me," he says, proudly showing where Gephardt signed his "Backbone of Steel" union sign at a Sunday rally. "At least I can say I did something."
Call it the making of a president, Iowa style. While many Americans quietly stew over Iowa's and New Hampshire's ballyhooed roles in choosing presidents, the Iowa caucuses aren't, in fact, just about Iowa. Old-fashioned get-out-the-vote efforts have always been important here. But this year, candidates are drawing unprecedented numbers of volunteers from all over the country willing to skip work, brave 20-hour road trips, or sleep in a crowded bunkhouse that's 100 snowy yards from the toilets and showers.
Armed with leaflets, buttons, and cellphones, they're the front lines in a battle that will come down to a simple question of bodies - which candidate can get more Iowans out of the house Monday night, and into one of gymnasiums, libraries, even living rooms and kitchens, that serve as gathering points for Iowa's 1,993 precincts.
The Dean camp alone boasts an influx of 3,500 out-of-staters over three weeks. Thousands more are coming for Mr. Gephardt, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, and Mr. Kucinich. They are students and teachers, bankers and union workers, retirees and those too young to vote. For many, perhaps most, it's their first campaign. If they can't vote in one of the country's most important - and bizarre - political battles, they say, at least they can influence those who do.
"I've decided to do this instead of being angry all the time," says William Margolin, a retired mechanical engineer in his 80s, who drove out alone from Southfield, Mich., through a winter storm last week. Like many of the Dean volunteers, he's staying in a winterized camp 20 miles south of town, and just being on his feet all day, knocking on voters' doors, has been exhausting. But he's also exhilarated.
"They say Dean is a youth thing," he says, "but there are older guys here too."
The volunteers' work is far from glamorous. "There's no one home!" exclaims Cheryl Beseler after leaving a "Dean Times" newspaper at perhaps the 10th unanswered door in a row, late Sunday morning. Finally, at a house with a hog-shaped bell by the door and a plastic Virgin Mary in the front yard, a man answers her knock.
"You're talking to a hardened Republican," he tells her. "I wouldn't vote for Dean to save my life."
Ms. Beseler plugs away gamely, bringing up taxes and the deficit. Finally she sighs and admits defeat. "That's the first time I've had an Independent who was really a Republican," she says later. "But at least he has an opinion."
Beseler was once a Republican herself - she voted for Reagan in 1984 - and, like many of the Dean volunteers here, is avowedly apolitical. "I resent having to do this," she says. "I don't even like politics. But it needs to be done."
The Dean volunteers tend to share that grass-roots, outside-the-system mentality, as well as a deep conviction that they're part of a revolution. In contrast, the Gephardt volunteers are more traditional - solid blocks of steelworkers, teamsters, and auto workers ensuring that blue-collar America has a voice in choosing the Democratic candidate.
And for many of them, spurred by anger over President Bush's trade, healthcare, and economic policies, it's also the first time they've traveled so far for politics.
"It's become a personal issue for us," explains Ronnie Blatt, an aluminum worker from Paden City, W.Va., wearing a black shirt that proclaims: "Gephardt - Fighting for My Job."
"When I see a retiree set down in front of me and cry because he don't know whether to eat or pay for his medicine, that gets to me," he says. Mr. Blatt came with 15 other volunteers from his steelworkers' district to spend three weeks making calls and knocking on doors.
One thing almost all the volunteers share is bewilderment at the caucuses themselves, in which people go in person to their precinct stations at 6:30 p.m., then spend two hours in a bizarre process - half-debate, half-kaffeklatsch - in which they might change candidate allegiances several times, and recruit wavering voters from across the room.
"It's like musical chairs!" says Mr. Erwin, the Kentucky aluminum worker.
It was in part to see that process on the ground that Laurence Horton came here, all the way from Cheltenham, England, to volunteer for Gephardt. "It's the biggest, best spectacle there is for anyone interested in politics." So far, he says, he admires the process, since it brings the candidates so close to ordinary citizens. "That's good for politicians and democracy," he says. "The problem is, you can't do it across 50 states."
Others are less sure about the boon for democracy. They cite Iowans who aren't physically able to show up for caucuses, or who have work or other commitments at 6:30. Some are discouraged at the small number - perhaps 3 percent of all Iowans - who participate. "Do they realize how lucky they are?" asks Pat Maslowski, a retired teacher from Drake, Colo., who traveled to Iowa with Beseler. "Candidates don't come to Colorado."
And nearly everyone here is confused.
"It is so weird," says Amber Morgan, laying a sleeping bag on her bunk at a winterized campground that's a temporary home to many Dean volunteers here. "I realized I just didn't know how the caucus is run. It seems like there's a lot of potential for abuse and fraud. And it's not a secret ballot. Isn't that key to the democratic process?"
Ms. Morgan, who comes from the New York borough of Brooklyn and is finishing her master's in teaching, says she decided to come to Iowa only recently. It's the first real campaigning she's done for Dean. At the end of her first day - she left New York early Sunday morning and spent all day knocking on Des Moines doors - she's exhausted and bewildered, and a little nervous about having to hike through the snow to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Still, she says, she's glad to be here: "It's a fun way to see Iowa, I guess."