ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Once those stressed out members of Congress finally get the bailout bill passed, they'll head home hoping for a little R&R. For most of them, though, one of those R's stands for re-election. The two guys at the top of the ticket are focusing their attention on a small group of swing states, and a surge of new voters has made Virginia one of the battlegrounds. Nearly 250,000 new voters have signed up in Virginia this year, and almost half of them are young, 18 to 24 years old.
Mr. MITCH STEWART (State Director, Obama Campaign, Virginia): We feel pretty comfortable and confident that those are our voters.
SEABROOK: That's Mitch Stewart. He's running Barack Obama's operation in Virginia. Republicans, though, say, not so fast. Here's John McCain's co-chairman in Virginia, Chris Saxman(ph).
Mr. CHRIS SAXMAN (Co-Chairman, McCain Campaign, Virginia): What we're seeing now is this tremendous growth in new volunteers who are showing up to help out the ticket, and that's pretty exciting.
SEABROOK: So, where better to gauge the excitement among the youngest troops in both campaigns? In the trenches. That's where NPR's Jacki Lyden spent the last few days.
JACKI LYDEN: Mark Gwindinger(ph) hates it when he forgets to put the big hat on the furry donkey suit. When he walks out with a donkey hat under his arm, little kids are so frightened, the 22-year-old says, he feels bad and ducks into the car. The donkey also carries a sign that says, "Republicans in 2008 LOL," laugh out loud. You got it straight from his furry mouth.
Mr. MARK GWINDINGER (Campaign Worker, Young Democrats of America, Virginia): This political work, it's kind of like being in a foxhole with all sorts of good friends. Once you get started on it, you don't want to give it up.
LYDEN: Eric Sanchez(ph).
Mr. ERIC SANCHEZ (Field Director, Young Democrats of America, Virginia): We brought the donkey out a bunch of times. It's always great. You see students coming around with their cell phone cameras taking pictures, asking you to take a picture with...
LYDEN: Eric Sanchez is a 22-year-old field director in Virginia for The Young Democrats of America, a group independent of the Obama campaign. The Young Dems have 13 paid staff members in the state. For the past three weeks, they've been hitting George Mason University especially hard. Here's 22-year-old Ralph Tyles(ph).
Mr. RALPH TYLES (Campaign Worker, Young Democrats of America, Virginia): And we're trying to establish a social network of young Democrat voters in the area, so is anybody else interested?
Unidentified Woman: I'll sign.
Mr. TYLES: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
Unidentified Woman: Sure.
LYDEN: Sanchez says The Young Democrats are building a list of young people that they can turn out for every election in Virginia, a list they legally can't share with the Obama campaign.
Mr. SANCHEZ: Targeting only young voters for us is crucial, so they feel that they can connect more when they have someone their age talking issues, and it's kind of engaged in a peer-to-peer campaign.
LYDEN: But not far away, some other young people are also walking and working as hard as elephants.
(Soundbite of knocking)
Unidentified Man #1: Hello.
Ms. ELISE MARSH (Chairman, College Republicans, George Mason University): Hi, Sir. My name is Elise Marsh.
LYDEN: Elise Marsh is going up and down a quiet street in the Robinson Precinct of the 11th Congressional District in Fairfax right near George Mason, where she's a junior. She turns 20 in about a week.
Ms. MARSH: Well, I was like 13 or 14 when we had the terrorist attacks of September 11, and I just thought that President Bush's response to the terrorist attacks was, you know, right on.
LYDEN: There's an important difference between her College Republicans and The Young Democrats. The College Republicans are part of the McCain campaign in this state, and that's where Elise gets her list of targeted houses. And when she's done, her survey data goes back to the campaign. The Virginia College Republicans say they've recruited 2,000 young people this month alone.
It's a hot day, and Elise works dozens of houses by herself wearing her red College Republican's T-shirt. It's grit and shoe leather. She gets a bunch of Republicans, a sprinkling of Dems, and one genuine undecided 18-year-old.
Ms. MARSH: In the election, do you plan to support McCain or Obama?
Mr. PAUL KAY(ph): Haven't really decided yet.
Ms. MARSH: Haven't decided yet? OK. And...
LYDEN: This is a key part of the ground war in Virginia, getting people with no voting record to the polls and crossing your fingers that they'll do what you want. Elise is talking with Paul Kay.
Mr. KAY: Yeah, I registered just recently. I actually got my card in the mail yesterday, so...
Ms. MARSH: So, what will you be looking at to help you make up your mind?
Mr. KAY: Well, I like McCain's support of Second Amendment rights, but I also like Obama's support of gay rights. So I'm kind of, like, in the middle there, so...
LYDEN: Campaign managers both seemed confident that whether the approach is top down, Republican, or peer to peer, Democrat, they'll get the voters they need to win. But neither side wants to reveal its ground game to reporters. Chris Saxman is the co-chair for McCain in Virginia.
Mr. SAXMAN: I come here from a tactical position of why would I tell anyone what we're doing while the game is under way? And if you're going to telegraph your passes to your opponents, what do you think you're doing?
LYDEN: But Saxman did say that the McCain campaign has opened nine victory centers around the state and will soon open ten more. On the Democratic side, the Obama campaign has opened 44 offices. Four years ago, at this point, the Kerry campaign had pulled out of Virginia entirely. Mitch Stewart is Obama's chairman in Virginia.
Mr. STEWART: The night that Senator Obama became the Democratic nominee, we had a thousand house parties across the Commonwealth with over 13,000 attenders. And those were neighborhood-driven events, and those are neighbors showing up.
LYDEN: On campus this year its been tough for John McCain, admits Matt DeLeon of the College Republicans.
Mr. MATT DELEON (First Vice Chairman, College Republicans, George Mason University): You know, coming from a college campus where students identify themselves as liberal, you know, especially after eight years of George W. Bush, we feel it's better to devote our time off campus than on.
LYDEN: The quarter million new voters of Virginia are more than enough to swing the state's election, and the Democrats are depending on the younger ones. So The Young Democrats of America practice their sales pitch in the car on the way to campus.
Mr. TYLES: Get out there and vote Democrat for the state and national elections.
Mr. SANCHEZ: OK, I'm picking up what you're throwing down, I like it. I like your energy, Ralph. Good job.
LYDEN: But with someone like Elise knocking on 46 doors for free on a Saturday morning, the McCain campaign's base seems ready and eager.
Ms. MARSH: Well, thank you sir. Have a wonderful day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #2: You, too.
Ms. MARSH: Thank you for your time.
Unidentified Man #2: Good luck. Do you have one of those little stickers for your cars?
LYDEN: She's not afraid of anything, not even dogs. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
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