The Iowa Campaign's Foot Soldiers

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux

Young staffers for various Democratic candidates take down campaign posters after Senator Tom Harkin's annual steak fry in Indianola, Iowa.

At campaign rallies, they're the head cheerleaders, whipping up enthusiasm in the crowd. At a multi-candidate steak fry, straw poll or debate, they're the ground troops fighting the "sign wars" — a surprisingly intense competition to put up the most campaign placards.

They are the hundreds of mostly young, underpaid campaign staffers and volunteers who serve as the foot soldiers for the presidential candidates vying in the upcoming fiercely-contested Iowa caucuses. Across the state, they can be easily spotted — driving compact cars sporting out-of-state plates and political bumper stickers, clutching cups of the best overpriced coffee available, handing out campaign paraphernalia and knocking on doors.

Just days after graduating from Brandeis University last May, Raena Davis became one of those hardy souls, packing a few belongings and driving from her childhood home in Miami to the temporary epicenter of presidential politics, Des Moines, Iowa. "I live in a pretty foul apartment," Davis, 22, says with a cheerful laugh. "I have no furniture except a mattress on the floor and an Ikea nightstand. I live out of my suitcases. I also have a coffee maker and cereal." She endures her Spartan digs, the hot weather, cold weather, countless stump speeches and 15-hour workdays as a staffer, all the while enthusiastically urging Iowans to vote for Joe Biden on January 3. "Sometimes it's so hard to get out of bed but I know how important the work is that I'm doing," says Davis. "In the office, there's so much energy from the other people, you feed off that."

Campaign staffers, of course, can be found all over the country. But thanks to the unusually complicated nature of the caucuses (which involves not a quick trip to the voting booth but an entire evening spent at a precinct caucus with complicated procedures) and the unusually keen participation of Iowans, the grassroots campaign here is longer and more intense than almost anywhere else. "Often times, the questions from 12-year-olds in Iowa are far more intelligent and relevant than a lot I've gotten from adults all across the country," says Carter Wamp, 23, of Nashville, a staffer for Republican Mike Huckabee who has lived since October in a West Des Moines apartment with a colleague, spending lots of time at schools and gun shows to spread his candidate's message. "People here are a great example for the rest of country of what a good citizen can do to choose the right person for our country."

All those questions mean staffers get to know Iowans unusually well. They not only work side by side with local volunteers, but they are also invited into Iowans' homes and lives, to share a meal, attend a religious service, celebrate a holiday, even to go on a blind date with a nice young Iowan. Davis calls fielding the Iowans' sophisticated inquiries "an intellectual experience beyond anything I went through in school."

As impressed as the staffers are with Iowans, the feeling seems to be mutual. Anne Welles, 60, a retired teacher, has had two twenty-something staffers she fondly calls "the Biden boys" staying in her Des Moines home since June. "I am very happy to help," says Welles, who, despite her houseguests' polite entreaties, is leaning towards Barack Obama. "It's so encouraging to know there are these kind of kids at this young age — hardworking, dedicated, respectful, supporting a cause, whatever they believe. As an educator, it gives me a lot of hope."

Bob Parker, 72, a retiree, and his wife Loretta, 69, a receptionist, hosted a "very friendly and wholesome" Huckabee staffer for several months in Story City, near Ames. "I learned how these young people can be inspired," he says. "They're working 21 hours a day and not begrudging it. And they make very little money."

For this campaign's crop of staffers, all eyes are on January 3, after which most of them will pack up and move on — maybe to South Carolina, Nevada, Florida or Michigan. Right now, they're busy organizing campaign events and flushing out potential supporters; schooling themselves and voters on the intricacies of caucus math; coaxing Iowans to leave their comfy homes on a winter night to caucus in a school gym or church basement.

They're also, above all, trying to keep hope alive. "It's amazing he's come so far," says Carter Wamp of Huckabee's dramatic rise in Iowa from back-of-the-pack to Republican caucus front-runner alongside Mitt Romney. "No one expects anything from us," says Raena Davis, acknowledging Biden's low poll numbers. But as befits someone willing to devote herself nonstop to such a cause, she is predicting a surprise strong showing for her man, saying, "I'm more than optimistic. I'm absolutely confident."