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The heart of campaigning


It's 10:40 Wednesday morning, and Chris Stets, a 22-year-old volunteer at John Kerry's campaign office in Annapolis, is placing a cold call to the next name on a computer-generated list of Anne Arundel County voters.

Another answering machine.

He leaves a message urging a vote for Kerry in Tuesday's presidential primary, his voice upbeat and earnest as he reads from a script prepared by the campaign. It is one of about 400 calls he will make before going home, exhausted, more than 10 hours later.

Thirty miles west, at the John Edwards campaign office in Capitol Heights, Mary Brown trudges for hours through a similar phone list. "I've been getting a lot of kids this afternoon," the 54-year-old volunteer says between calls. "I say, 'Please tell your parents to vote for Edwards.'"

In states crisscrossed by the candidates, this would be the back-office grunt work, eclipsed by raucous rallies and the accompanying landslide of local media coverage. But in Maryland, a second fiddle among Super Tuesday states, it is the heart of the campaigns.

"We're not building up to a big event, so we're completely focused on our field organization," said Nick Clemons, 30, Kerry's Maryland director and a 10-year veteran of political campaigns who helped run operations in New Hampshire and Maine before coming here two weeks ago.

"We're just grinding it out on the ground."

A day with the Kerry and Edwards campaigns this week offered a glimpse into both the monotony and intensity of the fight for votes in a backburner primary state. And it opened a window on the foot soldiers who wage it -- caffeine- and junk food-fueled idealists looking for a cause, a thrill or sometimes just a job.

Stets, an unemployed college graduate thinking about a career in government, drove to Kerry headquarters here from his hometown of Waynesburg, Pa., for a week of long days on the phone to voters.

"Pennsylvania's primary is not until May, so to get involved early, you have to travel," he explained.

Seated beside him in a sunny conference room in the city's historic district was Margaret Lloyd, 82, of Annapolis, a great-grandmother whose husband recently died.

"I have free time now," she said. Her last real work for a campaign, she said, involved door-to-door fund raising for George McGovern in 1972 as part of an effort called "Dollars for Democrats."

"If you believe in something," she said, "you have to work for it."

At the Edwards office in Capitol Heights, Tom Rapp, 21, said he took a semester off from the University of California, San Diego to join the North Carolina senator's campaign. He had been searching for meaning and found politics.

"It's very much a thrill," said Rapp, a clean-cut computer whiz who is helping sift through a voter database. "You feel like you're involved in something of very great importance."

How does he pay for it all? "I have a very Democratically leaning family," he said. "When I need food or gas money, I call up my grandparents."

Edwards gave a 20-minute speech at Prince George's Community College last Friday. Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and Democratic front-runner, has yet to campaign in Maryland. Aides say that a Monday visit is likely, though they note diplomatically that nine other states -- many with more delegates at stake -- also vote Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Edwards was rousing California college students with speeches on poverty. Kerry was rallying Ohio audiences with talk about job losses.

And so in Maryland, the campaigns slogged through less glamorous but essential work. They called voters ("phone-banking," in campaign-speak), hoisted signs at busy intersections and Metro stations ("visibilities") and got ready to leaflet vote-rich neighborhoods ("lit drops").

"Right now, it's just gearing up for the final push," says Jorna Taylor, Edwards' Maryland field director, a Wisconsin native who at 26 is the eldest member of the candidate's Maryland staff.

Her desk, piled with notebooks, two half-empty diet soda bottles and a candy wrapper, is a study in chaos tamed. She reminded herself of a conference call about a Maryland visit by Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife, by penning "trip call" on the back of her hand.

"There's never enough time in a day to get all you want done," said Taylor. She said she rarely leaves the office before 11 p.m.

At Kerry headquarters, Sarah Dale, 22, a campaign staffer who is the Anne Arundel County field organizer, was trying to wheedle invitations to speak at local high schools and colleges, with mixed results. "A lot of AP government teachers love it," she said. "I've had limited success going to the Naval Academy."

Katharine Lister, 25, Kerry's Maryland communications director, said she has fielded far fewer calls from reporters here than she did in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Kerry appearances drew national television crews and crowds of supporters.

This week, an aide invited local television stations to film Annapolis volunteers at a conference table calling voters. There were no takers.

So the campaigns sent in surrogates with at least a glimmer of star power.

Kerry's stepson, Chris Heinz, 30, sauntered into Caffe Brio in Federal Hill on Wednesday in a fuzzy sweater and jeans, ordered a small coffee and walked to a loft space upstairs to give a short talk. The hastily organized event drew just a dozen supporters, mostly college students from the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University.

"We're not fooling ourselves," Heinz joked in an interview. His stepfather, he said, "is the main event. We're just the warm-up act."

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