Jeff Daar was starting to think about next year's presidential race. With little more than a year to go, the chairman of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley knew that if he wanted to find an office, line up volunteers, and begin phoning voters, he had to start soon.
Then the California recall fell in his lap like an electoral anvil. What had before been a familiar year-long crescendo toward next November suddenly became a frantic scherzo, compressing all the effort of a major campaign into eight weeks.
Now, as he scrambles to set up his get-out-the-vote machine, the nation is watching. In a close, confusing election, experts say, his efforts to register, educate, and motivate voters - along with those of groups statewide - could prove decisive on Oct. 7.
The campaign's brevity makes their task daunting. But its oddity and celebrity has stirred unprecedented interest, giving organizers hope. They're registering far more people than normal at strip-mall kiosks and county fairs, and Mr. Daar can't remember the last time he had so many colleagues volunteer to make calls or lick envelopes.
It's potentially good news for the top three names on the recall ballot. Despite Arnold Schwarzenegger's stardom, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's momentum, and Gov. Gray Davis's experience, each will depend more than usual on grass-roots legionnaires.
"All are starting off in the same place for different reasons," says Derry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant. "So [registration and get-out-the-vote efforts] are critical."
For Mr. Schwarzenegger, who has cast himself as an antiestablishment candidate in the mold of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, there is the question of how he will motivate the young male voters most likely to support him - and least likely to vote. For Mr. Bustamante, there is the concern that, in past legislative recalls, 10 to 30 percent of voters have failed to vote on the second question. For Governor Davis, there is the fact that Republican support for the recall is so far stronger than Democratic opposition.
None of these problems is likely to be solved by photo ops or talk-show appearances, experts and operatives say. In such a short campaign, it's a matter of stamps and shoe leather.
"It's a very unusual campaign in that the ground operation is going to be more important than the TV war," says Eric Bauman, in charge of Davis's get-out-the-vote effort. "Turnout is the name of the game."
Pollsters suggest that turnout can skew a vote as many as 5 percentage points from the actual public preference. And although the campaign will probably have many twists ahead, analysts predict that both questions on the autumn ballot - whether to recall Davis, and who should replace him if he is recalled - could well be decided by less than 5 points.
That perception has filled California's political ground troops with a sense of urgency.
Even as teachers sort through the first manic back-to-school days, their strongest union is planning antirecall mailers for each member and is asking each chapter to hold a meeting explaining the union's "no on recall, yes on Bustamante" position.
Prodding the angry young nonvoters
Grass-roots clubs such as the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley are setting up phone banks and sending volunteers out to strip malls to register voters. At the just-concluded Ventura County Fair, the local Democratic Central Committee registered 25 to 30 people a day - more than twice as many as normal.
"The first day we almost ran out of voter-registration forms and had to get more from the county," says chairwoman Sharon Hillbrant.
Likewise, the state Republican Party registered some 13,000 voters the week after Schwarzenegger joined the race - accounting for 15 percent of the total this year. "We're hoping that will translate into high turnout," says party spokesman Mike Wintemute.
The Republicans might need it. Although Republicans are generally more reliable voters than Democrats, they're outnumbered here. Approximately 44 percent of the state's registered voters are Democrats; 35 percent are Republican. And three major conservative candidates - Schwarzenegger, Tom McClintock, and Peter Ueberroth - are expected to split the Republican vote.
Schwarzenegger has responded by running toward the disaffected center - though at some risk. In Minnesota, Mr. Ventura won because voters could register on Election Day. In California, voters must register by Sept. 22 to vote in the recall.
"Life will be easier for him on Oct. 7 if he registers a lot of angry young people who normally don't vote and prods ... them to actually show up," says Mr. Sragow. "That takes mail and phone calls."
On the Democratic side, plans for such efforts are already in place. Antirecall strategist Mr. Bauman promises the most comprehensive vote-by-mail program ever done, and adds that an "army of get-out-the-vote people" will canvass neighborhoods a few days before the election.
Some wonder how much effect their plans will have. "This is also just such a mess, and it is not awe-inspiring," says Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association. "There are [times when there are] candidates who make you want to give everything you have. This is not one of them."
Others, however, see an electorate energized by the uncertainty of the outcome - and what is at stake. Last weekend, the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley's Labor Day picnic was transformed from the usual quiet afternoon of barbecue and softball into a full-fledged antirecall rally. And Chairman Daar says he is "hearing from people we hardly ever hear from" as he sets up an antirecall office.
In the 2002 gubernatorial election, "it was hard to get anyone excited about anything because everyone thought [the result wasn't in doubt]," he adds. "That is not the case in this election."
The office could be open as early as this weekend, and with the unusual level of support, Daar is optimistic that he can reach as many Democrats as he would in a normal election cycle - perhaps 60,000 by phone and 200,000 by mail.
"The only thing I know," he chuckles, "is that it's going to be incredibly busy in a couple of days."