COLUMBUS, OHIO — As President Bush and Sen. John Kerry hurtle into the final two days of the presidential race, the campaign has in some ways already moved out of their hands - and into the hands of people like Regina Weinhardt.
Ms. Weinhardt, a stay-at-home mother of three in Thornbury Township, Pa., spent much of the weekend at the Hilltop Pub, a temporary headquarters for the Republican Party's get-out-the-vote drive in Delaware County, dialing up likely Bush voters and reading from a script reminding them to vote. A first-time volunteer, she admits that cold-calling strangers isn't easy - and at first she was relieved to get answering machines. But with deep concerns about terrorism and "morality" issues like abortion, she feels she has no choice but to be involved: "I've never felt this strongly before."
With polls showing the race still neck and neck - and with very few undecided voters left - strategists on both sides now agree that whoever does a better job at getting supporters to vote will probably win. The campaigns, along with a number of outside groups, are boasting the largest turnout operations in history, with hundreds of thousands of volunteers working the phones and going door to door in key battleground states. The overall effect is already clear in the vast increase in newly registered voters and, more recently, in high participation in early voting in states that allow it.
But while all this activity is aimed at electing a candidate, it may also have a broader cultural effect, simply by involving millions - volunteers and the voters they contact - in a massive exercise in civic participation of a kind not seen in decades. Turnout experts predict that the number of Americans casting ballots this year could be as high as 120 million - and, if the levels of intensity extend beyond November, could mark a reversal in the nation's steady decline in voting.
"This election is proving to be a great galvanizer of public interest," says Daniel Menaker, executive editor in chief of Random House in New York, who just spent a vacation week in Columbus, Ohio, volunteering for America Coming Together (ACT), a liberal get-out-the-vote organization. "This is the most energizing and encouraging political thing I've done in a long time."
The last time Mr. Menaker was this politically active was during the 1960s and '70s, and he says that what's going on now feels vastly different. Despite the country's much-touted political polarization, "you don't feel like anyone's trying to upset the apple cart of the nation," he says. "It's a very serious and earnest effort."
While the ground game is coming into sharper focus in these final days, it has been a critical feature of both campaigns for well over a year. Driven by memories of 2000, each side made it a top priority early on to identify and lock in every potential supporter. The operations have combined sophisticated targeting techniques - such as compiling massive databases on likely voters, indicating their top issues and other important bits of information - with a renewed emphasis on old-fashioned, person-to-person contact.
The Bush campaign has spent months tapping into networks like church groups and gun clubs, believing it makes a difference if voters are contacted by a credible and trusted source. Likewise, ACT has aimed to establish a "continuing conversation" with voters, knocking on the same doors repeatedly over the course of the past year.
The apotheosis of these yearlong efforts is an all-out drive on Tuesday to get each and every last one of these newly identified and much-courted voters to the polls.
There are organizational differences: The Republican effort is run almost entirely through the Bush campaign and the GOP apparatus in the states, while the Democratic ground war is being waged simultaneously by the Kerry campaign and a number of independent 527 groups, who cannot legally coordinate.
Although both sides rely largely on in-state volunteers, the Democratic efforts seem to have attracted a larger number of out-of-state workers as well - with the Florida and Ohio headquarters of groups like ACT and MoveOn displaying a heavy mix of New Yorkers and Californians, most of whom take vacation time and pay their own way. The 527s have also relied on more paid workers, along with volunteers.
Neither side is entirely sure who will have the superior effort come Tuesday.
Republicans admit that in 2000, Democrats beat them on the ground, allowing Al Gore to overcome a deficit in most polls and win the popular vote. Since then, they say, they have spent the past four years improving their operation, an effort that has led to the registration of 3.4 million new voters. It's "the most extensive ground game ever," says Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign. "The question is whether our operation is equal to their operation."
Republicans also say Democrats have largely outsourced their ground game to the 527s - a charge Democrats refute. They point out they will have 250,000 volunteers working in battleground states on Election Day - nearly three times the number working for Mr. Gore in 2000.
"[Democrats] have built, qualitatively and quantitatively, the most substantial ground game ever, for any Democratic nominee," says Michael Whouley, Kerry's ground-game strategist at the Democratic National Committee. Still, he adds, "I'd never underestimate my opponent. I think they will have the best operation Republicans have ever had."
The size and strength of both sides' operations, as well as differences in approach, are on display in key battleground states.
In Ohio, ACT will have 12,000 volunteers working on election day. In Wisconsin, Eric Phillips, an ACT spokesman, says his group recently added a second field office in Madison to accommodate throngs of eager workers. "The number of volunteers has exploded," he says. "We've been inundated."
The Bush campaign has made more than a million voter contacts this year in the Badger State and recruited 50,000 volunteers.
Molly Matzke is one of them. A municipal coordinator in Sun Prairie, Wis., she says she's never seen anything like this year's effort. After volunteering all weekend, she'll spend Tuesday at the polls with a voter list, in constant touch with other campaign workers. "On the Dole campaign, I had seven volunteers," the construction-company owner recalls. "This time I've got a hundred." Across the state, she and other Bush workers will listen to the names of those who show up to vote, then check them off their lists and make sure that other likely Bush supporters get to the polls.
Among Kerry-Edwards workers, a key component of the Tuesday effort is "knock and drag," in which volunteers go door-to-door asking people if they've voted - and, if they haven't, offering rides to polls or inviting them to go vote en masse.
Emily Anderson, a statewide student director for the coordinated Kerry-Edwards campaign, says that in 2000, students stood in voting lines that wound around the block - and interest this year is far higher. "If that happens, we'll try to keep those students in line," she says, "giving them hot chocolate or something along those lines."
In Pennsylvania, Republicans are making a big push in the Philadelphia suburbs - places like Delaware County, where GOP officials are hoping to turn out at least 125,000 Bush voters. This weekend, some 1,000 Republican volunteers went door to door distributing literature. On Sunday morning, workers leafleted cars in Catholic parishes with information on the candidates' positions on abortion.
Susan Cannon, a mother of four from Haverford, will spend Tuesday handing out literature, making calls, and awaiting orders. Sitting on the floor with her shoes off at the Radnor headquarters late last week, she bundled campaign literature. At her side was her 14-year-old daughter Mary, accompanying her mother as she has on other homework-free nights this fall.
"I'm not just concerned about the war on terror," says Ms. Cannon. "I'm concerned about the culture of life."
Democrats are looking for a big turnout in Philadelphia proper, particularly among African-Americans. Mayor John Street is hosting a series of events with the Hip Hop Action Network, including stars like Russell Simmons and Bill Cosby.
The streets in St. Petersburg, Fla. - which Gore took by a slim margin in 2000 - are gaudier than at Christmas, with competing Kerry and Bush signs staked in lawns and flowerbeds and taped to front windows.
In MoveOn's humble St. Petersburg headquarters, about 100 workers buzzed in and out beneath Kerry posters Saturday, calling potential voters and updating neighborhood lists. Like many MoveOn organizers, Ben Unger, a native Oregonian who's leading the effort in southwest Florida, is staying in the home of a Kerry supporter. "I leave before they get up and come home after they go to bed," he says.
This week heralds more of the same. For Mr. Unger and other volunteers across the battlegrounds - and newly engaged voters across America - Tuesday promises to be another late night.
Angela Scully, a Bush volunteer from Wayne, Pa., finds the prospect of having no clear winner on Election Day, despite massive turnout efforts and tireless preparation, deeply troubling. The volunteer work has been hard, she says, and her position often unpopular. "But I wouldn't forgive myself if I didn't get involved," she continues. "I feel like we're at the crossroads of history - in my head it's 1939."
• Mary Beth McCauley in Pennsylvania, Frank Bures in Wisconsin, and Lynn Harvey in Florida contributed to this report.