|DOVER, N.H. -- They came from all walks of life to a tworoom store on the block that locals call campaign row. There were the retired coffee distributor who flew in from New York City, the pay-per-view concert promoter, the college professor and the chef, to identify a few.
They had gathered around the computer, appropriately so, to read the news: Wesley Clark was in. After months of teasing, the retired general would become the 10th Democratic candidate to enter the field. And they celebrated, not with any sense of euphoria. Why, they hardly knew one another, and, until this day, some had never met. But celebrate they did, with handshakes, smiles and, what else, a news conference. "Mission accomplished," said Susan Putney, the ringleader of DraftClark2004.com.
Until Tuesday, campaign headquarters had been a relatively quiet place. It opened on July Fourth weekend, but the volunteer manning the telephone and computer every weekday afternoon surely had to feel lonely at times.
"There were days when the phone would ring two or three times," Putney said.
That began to change when word leaked from Clark's supporters in Little Rock that the general would definitely join the race.
"Now, it's ringing off the hook," Putney said.
It went unanswered for an hour or so Wednesday, when the handful of volunteers closed the office, which has no television, to watch Clark's announcement at Carabellas, a nearby bar and grill. They basked in Clark's thank you to the volunteers who had successfully wooed him.
"You've succeeded. I'm drafted. I'm in it," Clark had told them in a Wednesday morning Webcast. "I don't think... there's been anything this powerful in a long, long time in American politics," the candidate said.
"You guys are history," Gordon Stuber proclaimed excitedly to the three twentysomethings to his right. "You're part of history."
As he spoke, Stuber, 63, raised his glass of coffee. His comrades clanked their mugs of beer against it in a celebratory toast.
It was hardly the kind of scene that would be expected for a race as momentous as a presidential election. Indeed, it was the opposite of the frenzy surrounding the California recall election.
Think school board, not presidency, to get a feel for the sophistication and method of the New Hampshire campaign so far. But the Clark volunteers felt a great sense of satisfaction, nonetheless. They knew that Clark's speech, televised live on the cable news networks, was in some measure their handiwork.
OFFICE OF VOLUNTEERS
But most of them have never met Clark nor played an active role in a presidential race. Now that their first mission, to get Clark to run, has been accomplished, they're not even sure that they'll be asked to stick around to help win the Democratic nomination.
The office has only one paid worker, and she's part time. The rest are volunteers with families and jobs, and in some cases, classes to attend. The only thing they seem to have in common is the belief that the United States needs Clark as its next president.
Stuber has been volunteering at the Dover office for about three weeks. He's never met Clark, but he became fascinated with the man after hearing that Clark had graduated first in his class at West Point. Stuber's father-in-law graduated first in his class in 1950, so Stuber knew it took a special person to attain that honor.
Then, on July 21, Stuber stopped by the Washington, D.C., office of another group trying to woo Clark — DraftWesleyClark.com, and he talked to the two men running that office for about an hour. He soon decided that he would dedicate the next 16 months of his life to helping Clark become the 44th president of the United States.
When he notified his family, his brother replied by e-mail : "You're more of a fool than I thought you were."
His wife was more understanding. "I don't care if you go to New Zealand, New Delhi or New Hampshire. Just come back with a different president."
Stuber said he went to New Hampshire because of the crucial role it plays in winnowing the serious contenders in a presidential campaign. He soon hooked up with Putney, another political neophyte with an incredible urge to see Clark become the next president.
"I've never done this in my life," Putney said. "My political experience is that I shook Dick Gephardt's hand in '88, and then in 2000, I manned a phone bank one night for Al Gore. That's all I've ever done. I've never wanted or been inspired to do this for any candidate, but I am now."
34 YEARS OF SERVICE
One of the few people working in the Dover office who has met Clark is Lionel Ingram, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire, which is just a few miles down Highway 108 in Durham. Ingram shared an office with Clark at West Point in the early 1970s, when both were members of that school's faculty.
"I trust Wes. Wes has served 34 years. This is not something to be the culmination of a political ideal or dream. This is a continuation of a desire to serve our states," said Ingram, who had to pause as he began to choke up.
"Excuse me. ... I believe this, not because I see it in his face or because I see it on TV. I believe it because I know where he's coming from. I don't think that's the case for any other candidate. No other candidate has served for 34 years. They've done important things. They've done very useful things. But there's a difference between a desire to serve and what the other candidates have had."
If the people working in the Dover office seem to be idealists, they are also realists, and every one of them says he realizes Clark has a long way to go if he expects to do well in New Hampshire. He'll have to be charming, and personable, and work hard to overcome the 70-some appearances that candidates such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have already made in New Hampshire.
Indeed, the Clark office is adjacent to the Kerry office. Dean has an office two buildings down along Central Avenue. There, volunteer Caroline French did not seem worried by Clark's announcement.
"He'll be the flavor of the week for a week," she said. "But we've been the flavor of the week for about three months."