Union workers on leave from jobs in Los Angeles and San Francisco showed up ready for duty at a messy office near the Reno airport, and started rhythmically clapping and chanting, "Si, se puede."
"Wake up, America," a tattooed union man bellowed, on the off chance they weren't yet awake.
Across town, in a weathered office mall next to the Atlantis casino, Bill Baker, a former East Bay Republican congressman, greeted 100 travelers who arrived on charter buses from the Bay Area and Sacramento.
"This is what's going to win the election," Baker told them.
Bruce Springsteen and Bill Clinton aside, President Barack Obama's and Gov. Mitt Romney's true surrogates are Carol Dean, Maxine Rodowicz, Maria Cardenas and Jared Neil, partisans at the front lines of the campaign.
I tagged along as they slipped into sensible shoes and knocked on doors in Reno and Sparks last weekend. The goal was simple, though the work wasn't. Republicans urged Republicans to vote. Democrats urged Democrats to vote. Both sides tried to entice independents. In this good-against-evil campaign, they didn't change many minds.
The national parties and the candidates' organizations recruit supporters to knock on doors in the swing states. In Nevada, however, Obama has a separate weapon, Unite-HERE, the union that represents hotel, restaurant and casino workers.
Jack Gribbon, the union's California political director, is responsible for the culinary workers' effort in Northern Nevada. He is sending paid volunteers to 38,000 doors on swing streets in the swing county of Washoe in the swing state of Nevada.
Ellen Woods, a gray-haired union member from San Francisco, rolled up a pant leg last Sunday and showed Gribbon the bruise left by a dog that bit her the day before. Gribbon asked if the mutt drew blood, if she needed to see a doctor, and, importantly: "Did you get the vote?"
Washoe County has 91,322 registered Republicans, 89,701 Democrats, and 41,830 voters who state no party preference. Obama will win Las Vegas. Romney will win rural Nevada. That leaves Washoe County, the battleground.
Like his Republican counterparts, Gribbon does the math. Assume Romney wins the red and pink states, for 191 electoral votes. Next, assume Romney wins the swing states of Iowa, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. He'd have 268 electoral votes, two short of the 270 needed to capture the presidency.
Assume, now, that Obama wins solid blue and light blue states, for a total of 237 electoral votes. Next, assume he wins Colorado, with its large Latino population, and Ohio, where auto workers have jobs because Obama bailed out the industry. He'd have 264.
That leaves Nevada and its six electoral votes. To motivate the troops, Gribbon scrawled the equation in blue marker pen on white butcher paper at the front of the room.
With the morning chant over, Cardenas and Neil got their marching orders and drove to the north end of Reno, armed with the addresses and names of voters to contact.
Neil, 26, moved to San Francisco from Maine a few years ago, and quit his job at a San Francisco hotel to work on the campaign. He said his father disowned him because he is gay.
"It's ridiculous for anyone who is gay to be for Romney," Neil said.
Cardenas, 50, works at Dodger Stadium during baseball season, lives in Los Angeles, and is the mother of two daughters and a son.
"I believe in the DREAM Act," she said, referring to the law that Obama embraces and Romney opposes that offers children of illegal immigrants a path to legal residency.
"Hola," Cardenas said when a Spanish-speaking man opened the door to his home on Ridge Drive. He told her the voters will be back in a few hours. She promised to return and did, and reported back: Score two for Obama.
Across Ridge Drive, Sue Karon came to the door, told Buddy and Shadow to stop barking, and showed off a photo of Obama on her cellphone, taken in May when, on one of his many visits to Nevada, the president stopped on Ridge Drive to tout his efforts to combat the mortgage crisis.
Karon, 55, is a poker dealer who hasn't worked full time since 2006. Washoe County's jobless rate is bad, though it has fallen to 11.6 percent. Friends have lost homes and jobs.
"Probably half my friends are voting for what's-his-name, Romney," Karon said. Not her. "The Republican platform is very scary." She is heading to Las Vegas on Tuesday for a temporary job dealing poker and will be gone on Election Day. Neil called the office, got the location of the closest place where Karon could vote early, made sure she wrote it down and made a note to follow up.
Democrats and Republicans have secret micro-targeting recipes. But it boils down to the basics. Each side identifies its likely supporters and makes sure they cast their votes.
In Nevada, Republicans are hampered because Ron Paul supporters have seized control of the party, scaring off donors. But Team Romney and the Republican National Committee have stepped in, with help from Californians.
Volunteers arrived by charter bus last Saturday morning at the office mall parking lot, get a pep talk, instructions and $20 for lunch. Rodowicz, 59, one of the weekend warriors, is a retired U.S. Postal Service worker who lives outside Rancho Cordova with her husband, an Air Force veteran. They have five kids and five grandkids.
"If Obama stays in another term, the United States as we know it will no longer exist," Rodowicz said.
Her friend, Carol Dean, 68, rode over from Sacramento where she lives with her husband, a union man. They have four kids, six grandkids, five great-grandchildren. She's a Democrat. But when Obama seeks the women's vote, Dean is not who he has in mind. She is a born-again Christian who opposes abortion, and denounces Obama as "the most pro-abortion president, bar none."
"I honestly do not think he has the country at heart," Dean said.
Last Saturday, Dean and Rodowicz knocked on doors along Tranquil Drive in Sparks. As the street name implies, it's a pleasant neighborhood. Many residents have horses and oversize pickup trucks.
At Dave and Carol Walker's home, Dave seized the chance to tell us what he thinks of the president. "You've opened a can of worms," Carol said as Dave started. He is a retired stagehand who worked in Hollywood and was a union man. In his view, Obama has never created a job in his life.
"This country was not built on socialism," he said.
Down the street, Bill Silvershield, 56, an independent, said that appearances aside, the crash hit Tranquil Drive hard, just as it did Ridge Drive. A house on 2 acres sold in distress for $145,000 a few months back.
"Too much growth and stupid loans," he said, summing up the boom and bust. Turning to the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Silvershield asked: "Why should we be apologizing to these countries?" The answer was obvious to him. We shouldn't. The women made sure he knew where to vote.
The campaign will continue today and through Nov. 6, house by house, voter by voter in this toss-up county in this toss-up state in this toss-up country. The door-knockers didn't change minds. This is, as too many voters see it, a race between extremes, a socialist and plutocrat. There is not much middle ground, not on Ridge and Tranquil drives.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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