Their candidate is in trouble. A reporter has discovered that the pol lied about his credentials, and now the scribe is calling, on deadline, for a response. The threat of a campaign meltdown looms.
One team of campaign managers recommends that their candidate stonewall. Another group insists he should come clean and apologize to voters. A debate erupts.
Welcome to Campaign Management 101, or, as the course at Oakland University north of Detroit is officially known, Political Campaigns. It's largely the brainchild of John Klemanski, a longtime political science professor and occasional political consultant who - fresh out of grad school - once managed a campaign himself.
The Great American Game, as politics has been called, is the subject of endless study, but academic courses on the art and science of campaigning are a rarity.
The class is a draw for politically minded students who in the past might have settled for being just another blade in a grass-roots campaign - stuffing envelopes or planting lawn signs. After the course, they'll be able to manage a statehouse run.
"What I try to do in class is to teach strategy and some technique, but also ethics," says Mr. Klemanski, who has seen his share of hustlers on the hustings. "I'd hope I can contribute to the increasing professionalization of campaigns. It's my belief you can win and do the right thing at the same time."
The demand for trained campaigners is clear in Michigan, where 100 statehouse seats are up for grabs every two years. This year, Klemanski had to cap the class at 30 - with a few distance-learners thrown in - and leave others on a waiting list.
Learning the ins and outs of managing a campaign has long been accomplished on an apprenticeship basis. Typically, idealistic young people do grunt work while learning strategy from grizzled veterans, and then take a larger role in the next campaign. But that process can lead to an unnecessary reinventing of the wheel.
"For young political activists there's a crying need for someone to help them with the big picture, to think more theoretically, but also to give them some practical knowledge and just tell war stories," says Ken Brock, a Democratic consultant in Michigan. He delayed college a year to intern in a state representative's office at age 18, and is now a guest lecturer in the course.
Mr. Brock recalls attending a lecture, early in his career, by a high-ranking official in Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. "For the first 10 years I was in politics, I lived by those notes," he says.
Likewise, the handouts given to students here constitute a bible for budding political gurus. The class covers tasks such as analyzing a district, crafting a message, and positioning a candidate, as well as the nuts and bolts of polling, fundraising, budgeting, advertising, dealing with the media, and organizing volunteers.
Even phrases tossed out during the weekly 3-hour class may well echo in students' consciousness throughout their political careers: "Always seize the semantic high ground" when partisan bickering breaks out; "Remember, the candidate is a product and elections are a one-day sale."
On a recent evening, nine political consultants from the state capital, Lansing, paid a visit. When the students tried to solve a variety of fictional campaign disasters, the collection of slick marketing pros, pollsters, and consultants served as advisers, giving the room the look of a casting call for "West Wing 2."
Klemanski's emphasis on campaign professionalism on the one hand, and the dark side of politics on the other, often constructively collide.
"I don't even have a section on ethics in the course syllabus, yet we talk about it all the time," Klemanski says. "When somebody asks if they can learn about the dirty-tricks part of the business, I ask them: As a voter, what do you hate about politics? This stuff. So why do it?"
The class is a potpourri of undergraduate and nontraditional students: political science majors filling a requirement, some who want to be campaign managers or candidates, and some armchair political quarterbacks.
Heather Clement, a 30-something undergrad, it taking the class and working part time. Her aspirations tend toward journalism and she has no immediate intention of running a campaign, but she has been asked by people in the community to run for city council, and sees the course as a possible springboard.
Sharon LeDuc is in a master's program in counseling, but decided to enroll in the campaign course because her husband is running for district judge. The race is nonpartisan and no direct campaigning is allowed, so Ms. LeDuc is not acting as her husband's campaign adviser.
"Despite who I'm married to I'm not a political person, so this is all a learning experience for me," says the mother of five. "I love the class."
A more-typical student is Anya Prest. A junior political science major, she was already associated with the beginnings of a friend's statehouse run last November when she saw the course advertised. She will not manage her friend's campaign this fall, preferring to stay in school and get a degree. But she would consider taking a job in Lansing if her candidate wins.
"Being involved in a campaign, kind of going back and forth between it and this class, it's interesting to see how [my candidate] is following a lot of the same principles they are stressing in the class," Ms. Prest says.
Mike Premo is a graduate of the first Political Campaigns class, offered in 2000. He ran a statehouse race in Michigan as a paid employee shortly after the class finished, managing one full-time field coordinator and more than 200 volunteers. Although his candidate lost, the run made Mr. Premo known in party politics, and he now works for the state Democratic Party in Lansing. He is weighing his options at the moment and could remain a party operative, try his hand at being a political consultant, or perhaps again follow the lure of the campaign trail.
"Campaigns are intense, and the pressure is extreme, but I've never worked at a job before or since that I had the feeling of getting up in the morning and absolutely loving what I was doing," he says.
Klemanski believes that college students, by and large, remain turned off to politics, so it's not easy to explain the popularity of his course. "But there are students who just plain like politics," he says.
"You're out there trying to elect what you consider to be a good candidate, helping to craft their message and develop a vision about the future and inspire people. That's special."