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A MONTH ago, the national press had all but written off Eugene McCarthy's bid to wrest the Democratic Presidential nomination from Lyndon Johnson. They said his campaign was not catching on, that he hadn't drawn the large-scale support from anti-war students that he had hoped for.
Then, as the new term began and students recovered from exams and the traumas of January, an army started to form. An army of student foot soldiers--that last weekend numbered some 700 volunteers and the week before about 400--rallied behind the Senator, going door-to-door in the cold and ice that is winter in New Hampshire. And, whether directly or indirectly, the Senator's campaign has picked up. Even his most bitter critics in the Granite State now see a strong McCarthy showing in Tuesday's primary as almost inevitable.
It will never be known just how many votes the canvassers have attracted to the McCarthy cause. But they have helped to instill in the campaign a general sense of optimism and enthusiasm that was all but non existent a month ago.
They're an odd bunch, these canvassers. Not very politically experienced, generally, and not even sure of exactly where McCarthy stands on many issues, they are all devoutly opposed to the war in Vietnam. And they think that working for McCarthy is their way to oppose the war with action.
Two weeks ago four busloads of kids from Washington paid fifteen dollars apiece to come to New Hampshire. Buses have come from Providence, from Ithaca, from Northampton, and from Cambridge, and cars have come from as far south as Virginia and Maryland. The students who stay overnight sleep in private homes, churches, and college dormitory rooms and lobbies. New Hampshire has been invaded.
Every volunteer--after a January of indecision, disorganization and seeming disaster--has now been effectively put to work. Those whose hair is too long or who refuse to shave their beards or moustaches canvass by phone, handle the mailings, and sort canvass cards--helping with the office work that just a few people were doing several weeks ago.
FOR some, working for McCarthy is a stop-gap measure. "If he loses and then supports Johnson," one Harvard canvasser said "then I'll probably work for the Resistance or the draft union." For others, canvassing has convinced them of the futility of working within the political system. They mention the closed-mindedness, the selfishness, and the apathy of the people they meet.
But for every disillusioned student, there are apparently five to ten who return to college each week more encouraged. They tell their friends that the campaign is picking up, that the people are listening, that McCarthy suddenly has a chance.
The technique employed in New Hampshire is simple. Each canvasser is given a bundle of literature and a stack of names and addresses of all Democrats and Independents in a voting district. At briefing sessions, the canvassers are told to bring the war home, to try to talk about inflation and taxes and domestic failures.
Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it's easy. Many volunteers have been amazed at the hospitality and courtesy of New Hampshire voters. Others have been disgusted and disappointed. "Very few people were home on my route," one said, "and those that were all like Johnson."
Throughout the state, such experiences seemed the exception. Many canvassers have found a fairly wide-pread lack of confidence among New Hampshire voters in President Johnson and a genuine desire to know about all candidates. They feel that a lot of people are being reached and expressing their thoughts who other wise would probably not have gone to the polls.
One Harvard canvasser was working in a predominantly French-speaking section of Concord. For twenty minutes he spoke to one women--in French--and at the end she told him that no political person had ever before listened to her. He was pleased to report that she was planning to vote for McCarthy.
Another, after lavishly praising the remodeling of a voter's apartment, got the voter worked up to such a pitch that he was screaming anti-war epithets down the staircase as the volunteer departed.
FOR some students, Senator McCarthy's positions are not far enough to the left. He does not advocate immediate withdrawal, but rather a de-Americanization of the war a cessation of bombing of the North, an end to offensive military action--in general an attempt to "bring about an atmosphere for negotiations," a course he claims the Administration is not pursuing.
Most canvassers acclimate themselves to McCarthy's views. As one put it, "he's made the challenge, he's what we've got. We have to work for him even if we don't agree with exactly what he says."
The canvassing machinery has progressed very well since it began three weeks ago. Then, students were told to play down the war, to rather talk about domestic programs. But this tended to confuse voters, since McCarthy's speeches have dealt almost entirely with the war. His other statements are all connected with Vietnam and its costs in terms of lives, money, resources, priorities, and national spirit.
The post-canvassing meeting and parties have the air of a large European youth hostel. The canvassers exchange stories of their day's experiences in much the same way that kids travelling in Europe trade hitch hiking stories. There's always a man who was drunk when the canvasser called, or a quiet, elderly women who looked like she was straight out of "Arsenic and Old lace."
One woman, confronted by a canvasser, said that she didn't have to go to the polls because she had already sent in her pledge card--a promise of support that Johnson backers solicited from New Hampshire Democrats earlier in the campaign.
Many canvassers have found the last few weekends an invaluable experience in dealing with people. Voters have listened surprisingly enough, to what they have to say. They have found that it is possible to talk with even the most vehement Johnson supporters and still come away encouraged.
But many have been disappointed A solid half of all the cards are marked "NA" by canvassers--"not available." Some of these people have received literature in the mail and some have been reached by phone, but to many canvassers the large number of "NA"s means that their work is largely insignificant. And the voting lists from which the names and addresses have been drawn have often been unreliable. Voters have moved, houses have been torn down, people have changed party affiliation. It is not unusual for a volunteer to come back with 40 cards, 25 of which are marked. "NA," ten "moved," and the remaining five leaning toward Johnson or undecided. One canvasser said that he had been given 25 cards all at the same address, and when he got there he found that the address was a trailer camp with over 75 vehicles in it. After going from trailer to trailer and being told that "Mr. Jones had that space next door four years ago," he gave up, and marked all 25 cards "NA."
STILL, the spirit of the volunteers and of the campaign continues to get stronger. The students feel that their work is having an impact, and that, just possbily, it may lead to a strong McCarthy showing in New Hampshire.
The Senator himself is pleased with the canvassers' enthusiasm and support. For the past two weekends, those working throughout the state have gathered together on Saturday night for a massive mixer-type party. And at both occasions Senator McCarthy was there to offer them encouragement, congratulations, and gratitude. He signed autographs, shook hands, smiled a lot, and made it all seem worthwhile. He says his army of students is something "America has never seen before" and that his campaign could never have progressed so quickly without their help.
The response in New Hampshire has been encouraging. The vigor and enthusiasm that the student canvassers have brought to the Granite State has not been ignored by the voters. They have been surprised and usually fairly receptive to the volunteers. And this, of course, helps the Senator. As the McCarthy coordinator in Nashua told the canvassers this past Saturday night, "The people in Nashua like you, and if the people in Nashua like you, they like Senator McCarthy."
Whether or not McCarthy does well in Tuseday's primary, he has succeeded in bringing a large number of young people back into politics. He has shown the canvassers that there are sincere, intelligent men in positions of importance who think as they do, who feel repugnance toward the war and what they feel it has done to America
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