MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Scott, Jennifer and Sean, students from Maryland, hunch over a paper-strewn table in an office overlooking busy Elm Street. They scribble while music plays on a portable stereo.
They're writing not term papers but thank-you notes -- to strangers whom hours earlier they asked to vote for Bob Kerrey for president.
This is an everyday scene in New Hampshire as the Feb. 18 presidential primary approaches. Thousands of volunteers, mostly students, drive Campaign '92.
"They're the lifeblood of any campaign," says Mary Ellen Glynn, press secretary to another Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton.
They knock on doors, stuff envelopes, call voters, chauffeur campaign vehicles, even deliver newspapers at 5 a.m. to the hotel rooms of slumbering candidates.
For this, they are paid pizza and doughnuts and given a bed to sleep in -- not that there's much time for that.
"I get here at 8:30 in the morning and usually leave right after the 11 o'clock news," says a pale Earl Ryan, toiling at Republican Patrick J. Buchanan's walk-up headquarters.
Students fly, drive and thumb their way to New Hampshire from as far away as California, although Massachusetts schools across the state line supply most of the free labor.
Their numbers swell on weekends. Some who come for a visit end up staying: After all, what can they learn in Political Science 101 that they can't experience first-hand here?
"We had one kid who came up for a weekend. He really liked it and dropped out for a semester," Ms. Glynn says.
They're not only teen-agers and people in their 20s in blue jeans and work boots. George O'Neill, 41, a sculptor from Lake Wales, Fla., stopped casting bronze statues of animals and classic nudes to improve the efficiency of Mr. Buchanan's computers.
Men appear to outnumber women. Few are black. Although it's impossible to say which candidate has the most volunteers, some have at least 350.
What motivates such people, like the volunteers for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin who handed out literature in freezing weather outside a Franklin school the other night?
And the poor fellow from Florida who probably had never seen snow before he found himself steering a van full of people on icy roads?
And the 40 Kerrey supporters who on a Friday night in January boarded a chartered bus in Washington, and at 7 a.m. Saturday tumbled out into the frigid air of a New Hampshire morning to work for a Nebraska senator whom few, if any, had ever met?
Volunteers explaining why they're involved often cite the tangible and intangible, specific issues and gut feelings.
Jennifer Henkle, a University of Baltimore Law School student who supports Mr. Kerrey's call for national health insurance, met a man who runs a small store and can't afford health insurance for himself. "It's a frightening prospect," she says.
"He strikes something in me, kind of inspirational," says Sean Kennedy, a graduate student at Washington College in Chestertown, referring to Mr. Kerrey.
Many worry the nation is heading downhill. There's no question the recession sparked interest in the presidential race.
"I just think people in college, facing the future, see there are no opportunities and they're wondering why," says Scott Davis of Columbia, a supporter of Mr. Kerrey, who is pursuing a master of business administration degree at the University of Maryland.
For some, the economy is a personal issue.
Evelyn and Fred Keating of Manchester, a retired couple, joined the campaign of Arkansas Gov. Clinton last fall because of what had happened to the families of their four daughters.
"Two of them were out of work; my nephew was out of work," Mr. Keating says. "We saw Manchester going downhill. It looks like a ghost town compared to what it was 20 years ago."
The Keatings stand out in a crowd of young people in Mr. Clinton's storefront headquarters, several blocks from Mr. Kerrey's on Elm Street.
It is cluttered with desks, phones and computers that might have been dropped carelessly by a tornado. The Keatings have done their best to decorate the office with an American flag 8-feet-by-10-feet, and numerous banners proclaiming the virtues of the candidate and his issues. Mr. Keating, a retired engineer dressed casually in a flannel shirt, made the banners on his computer printer at home.
Never having worked before for a campaign, "I didn't realize there was so much to it," Mrs. Keating, a shy woman, said as she marveled at the activity around her.
Tess Petix, Mr. Buchanan's press secretary, says volunteers provide more than labor to the dozen paid staff members who direct the campaign.
"They buoy a flagging spirit," she says. "The earnestness with which they approach issues is invigorating."
When Mr. Buchanan announced his candidacy in December, conservative faithful who felt betrayed by President Bush flocked like Minutemen to the American Revolution. They are people for whom the cause is more important than the candidate.
"I'm terribly worried about the Bush presidency. We were duped in '88," says Mr. O'Neill, the sculptor, referring to the president's "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.
He is a slender man with dark hair and a striped tie. Upstairs in the sprawling Buchanan headquarters, also on Elm Street, he is munching on chips and sandwiches with a half-dozen other volunteers.
They're all younger, and male, with the exception of Mr. O'Neill's wife, Amy, a theological scholar. She is dressed in a skirt, jacket and pearls as she calls evangelical ministers to ask for their support.
They chat between bites about the decline of socialism in Sweden, the anti-conservative bias of the news media and the failings of the National Review, a conservative magazine that, one volunteer says, has gone "squishy."
Disdainful of Mr. Bush, who refuses even to utter Mr. Buchanan's name, they say their man attracts all the young conservatives. "I bet you won't find a volunteer under 40" working for Mr. Bush, says Mr. Ryan, 23.
That turns out to be true at Mr. Bush's headquarters, a quarter-mile away at Elm and Bridge streets, where a life-size cardboard cutout of the smiling president greets visitors. But Rich Myers, press secretary for the Bush campaign, says that's not surprising.
"We have less of a need for in-office volunteers," he says. "We don't have to get name recognition for our candidate. George Bush is pretty well known by everybody. I think our volunteer organization, the nuts and bolts of it, is in the field.
The competitiveness between the campaigns leads to boastful claims about who has the largest and most dedicated corps of volunteers.
"The Boston Phoenix called us True Believers," says Andrew Nelson, 23, the press secretary and one-time volunteer for former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, a Democrat. "We'll do anything for the guy."
Tsongas volunteer Sage Jensen, 18, a high school graduate from nearby Nashua, is typical of many when she explains why she was willing to give up time and a chance to earn money to buy a car.
"It won't come again for four years," she says. "So this is a great opportunity."