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CHARLESTON, S.C.—His Panthers endangered, his political future in the balance, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., bursts into Manny’s Bar at halftime Sunday night, clearly a man on the prowl.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday in downtown Charleston. Edwards is making his first appearance here in weeks, and the campaign faithful are out in droves.
High-ranking staffers mingle with the volunteers who make up the bulk of the campaign crew. Edwards signs line the walls, and Dean supporters are turned away at the front door.
Cameras in hand, seven campaign volunteers stand along the edge of the crowd. These seven members of the Harvard College Democrats arrived in the heart of Edwards country last Thursday, political shock troops hoping to push their candidate over the top in the last days before the first-in-the-South primary.
The Edwards supporters form part of a larger contingent of 22 College Dems who flew down to campaign for their favorite candidates, while gaining first-hand experience of the political process.
With funding from the Institute of Politics (IOP), the College Dems lotteried 20 plane tickets for Charleston and its average January temperature of 51 degrees.
At Manny’s, the Edwards volunteers get the chance to meet the man they’ve travelled hundreds of miles to help.
“I can officially die now,” laughs Brittani S. Head ’06, president of Harvard Students For Edwards, after mugging with her candidate.
The party continues at Manny’s even after Edwards rolls on to the next stop on his “Real Solutions Express.”
Inside the bar, College Dems President Andrew J. Frank ’05, chats up Ashley Bell, his national counterpart who is president of the College Democrats of America. Bell notes that he has yet to meet a College Democrats chapter president who is not supporting Edwards. Frank, who volunteered for Edwards in South Carolina, smiles; he’s one of the gang.
The relaxed mood of the Harvard volunteers belies their hard work over the past week. The College Dems have been knocking on doors, phoning voters and waving signs. They’ve been shown on CNN, interviewed for the local news and featured on the front page of Charleston’s major daily newspaper.
The experience mixed exhilaration with frustration, fun and games with hard work.
“There’s a frantic energy,” says Eric P. Lesser ’07, a volunteer for the campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass. “Everyone runs around and is so excited and nobody knows quite what to do.”
Spreading the Good Word
Political canvassing is a quiet activity. Far away from the cheering crowds and deep-pocketed donors are hordes of volunteers walking the streets, knocking on doors and fueling the campaign from the ground level. These workers are a disparate bunch, an amalgam of college students, the unemployed and the elderly. It is a collective that can, on a warm January day in Charleston, build bonds between people who would not otherwise meet.
All have made sacrifices to get here. Mumu Xu ’07 shelled out $100 for airfare in addition to the cost of daily meals, all so that she could to give up her intersession break to work for Edwards. Matthew and Nathan Ray, two brothers who worked alongside the Harvard volunteers, drove down here from Ohio—a 10 and a half hour drive. Each brother is taking time off from school. Nathan, 23, is in his last quarter at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio; Matthew, 15, is a high school freshman playing hooky for a few days.
The streets they walk have names like Morning Dove Road and Summer Leaves Court. The neighborhood looks and feels like a recent development. The area of Canterbury Woods turns into the upscale Lake Myrtle Village, a block of pleasant suburban homes with manicured lawns and screened-in porches.
Xu clutches a list of voters as she trudges door to door. Stepping up to the porch, she knocks gingerly, waits a few seconds, then knocks again.
“I’m from the Edwards For President Campaign, and I was wondering if we could count on your support on Tuesday,” Xu says, in a prepossessing but shy voice.
She is a bit nervous at first—a bit too quick with her words. She may rush through her script, but in the end, the flyers are handed out, and the word has been spread.
The majority of homes she stops by this Friday afternoon are empty. Xu drops a flyer in the door and checks off the house from her list. Those who actually make it to the door are pleasant, but don’t say much. Maybe they’re undecided, maybe they’re already Edwards supporters; in the worst-case scenario, they’re Republicans.
After a full afternoon traipsing from one corner of the neighborhood to another, Xu is rundown by this tedious process.
“It’s pretty tiring,” she admits.
Motivated college students make up the bulk of the campaign workforce here in South Carolina.
“We relied heavily on volunteers, and a lot of those volunteers were college kids, with endless energy,” says Cate Edwards, daughter of Sen. Edwards and a senior at Princeton. “[They] don’t need to sleep because they don’t sleep anyway.”
Many of the Harvard volunteers here have more experience than their peers in the campaigns, and they took charge early.
Whether coordinating campaign events or after-hours drinking games, Brittani Head is one of the Edwards camp’s most resourceful members.
In the Charleston campaign office, she deals directly with the campaign directors. On the streets outside, she wields a video camera to capture the volunteers’ interactions with voters for an IOP television program.
Head’s take-charge attitude is matched by Jessica R. Rosenfeld ’07, who mans the front desk of the Edwards office just 24 hours after walking through the door for the first time.
At the Dean campaign, Gina C. Schwartz ’06, co-chair of Harvard Students For Dean, shouts into the receiver as her fellow Deaniacs call voters in the background. The elderly woman on the other line is hard of hearing.
As Schwartz’s voice rings through the house, David C. Marshall ’07 forces himself out of his comfortable position and walks downstairs; he can’t hear a word through the racket. Elizabeth S. Thrall ’05 sits quietly at a desk, a cell phone cradled in her ear; Russell M. Anello ’04 is upstairs making his calls.
The Dean campaign office has moved two blocks south and two blocks west of its usual center of operations. These Dems, spending their off-peak weekend mobile minutes on phonebanking, can bring the cause with them wherever they go.
A chorus of campaign spiels and “yes, ma’am, thank you ma’am”s fills the room. A Southern accent has started to creep into the volunteers’ voices.
Schwartz, a native of upstate New York, is suddenly blessed with a trace of South Carolinian drawl; Elizabeth has added a dash of Texan to her light New Joisey inflection.
Shades of Frustration
The Dean campaign here is full of passionate but inexperienced staffers and volunteers. There is a certain energy and verve that is missing from the mechanical quality of the Edwards operation. But at the same time, this energy is unfocused. Things are disorganized. Harvard volunteers grow impatient at being given overlapping canvassing routes and, worse, duplicate phonebanking numbers.
At the Kerry camp, Harvard volunteers voice their frustration over the campaign staff’s incompetence, and begin to take their own initiative.
“It’s just frustrating that we spend so much time in the car,” Lesser complains after he and other Harvard volunteers spend nearly an hour trying to locate the right canvassing neighborhood.
When the Kerry workers wind up in a wealthy, upper-class neighborhood, Jonathan D. Einkauf ’06 worries that their efforts will be squandered in a “likely” Republican area. To prove his point, Einkauf accosts a man in his driveway, asking whether anyone in the neighborhood would ever vote liberal.
“He gave me a look like I was smoking something,” Einkauf says.
Disappointed by the disorder of the campaign office, Einkauf, Lesser and Joseph M. Hanzich ’06 take it upon themselves to leave literature at black churches and grocery stores along their assigned routes.
Lesser explains that given the hectic circumstances, sometimes the volunteers on the ground have to take things into their own hands.
“A lot of the [campaign] strategies are written from Washington, D.C., or we were getting our orders from Columbia,” Lesser says. “But once you put feet in the street you realize that certain things that they’re asking you to do might not be effective. Once you’re out there, people are responding to different things.”
—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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