In New Hampshire, volunteers take first steps on campaign trail

February 02, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Correspondent

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.

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