HOOKSETT, N.H.--The 75-year-old bearded man in a frayed Princeton sweatshirt looked skeptical when he answered the knock at his front door and found two college students waiting for him with pamphlets in their hands.
"Good evening," one of the students said, "I just wanted to remind you about the primaries tomorrow, and I'd like you to consider voting for Jon Huntsman."
For months, New Hampshire residents have been inundated with commercials, flyers, kids on their doorstep and candidates--complete with a media horde and an entourage--barging in on their breakfasts.
Alex Schultheis, 22, and Jake Wagner, 19, are students at St. Anselm College on the 11th-hour front lines here for Jon Huntsman. Over the past several months, they've had doors slammed in their faces, been threatened by dogs and learned how difficult it is to drive a campaign sign into the frozen New Hampshire ground. (It's not called the Granite State for nothing.) They've resorted to drills, hammers and even blow torches to make sure the signs stay put.
Tuesday is make-or-break time for Huntsman. The former Utah governor and ambassador to China ignored Iowa entirely and has lagged in the polls nationally and in the Granite State. Unfortunately for Huntsman, Mitt Romney seems to have a lock on the state. All Huntsman can realistically hope for is a strong second-place or third-place finish.
But that will take intense on-the-ground work that won't end until the polls close on Tuesday.
At Huntsman's Manchester campaign headquarters on Monday, dozens of volunteers, mostly students, scurried around the small, five-room office. In the main room, college kids worked the phones amid pizza boxes and Dunkin' Donuts pastries. The walls were covered in signs, to-do lists, precinct maps and pictures of Huntsman, and a television in the corner plays Fox News around the clock. An English foxhound darted back and forth, and there's usually a wiener dog named Sidney wearing a tiny T-shirt covered in Huntsman stickers.
In a nearby room, a new crop of volunteers received a crash course in how to talk to voters. "Hi," a brown-haired teenager sitting in the corner, reading the official phone bank script, said into a receiver. "I'm calling on behalf of presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. Can I ask you two very quick questions regarding tomorrow's election?"
She went on to discuss his three ambassadorships ("he always puts country first") and didn't ignore that one of those was for a Democratic administration ("never apologizing for crossing a partisan line to serve America"). As mandated by law, she ended the conversation with, "This call has been paid for by Jon Huntsman for president."
A middle-aged woman named Laura Ramos stood up for a break. "I'm always just dying here near the end," she said. Ramos is the the campaign's star volunteer. Since the end of August, she has clocked 6,000 calls for the phone bank, an office record. Last cycle, she worked for Rudy Giuliani and made 20,000 calls.
I joined Schultheis and Wagner on Monday for their final afternoon of door knocking. We piled into Wagner's Jeep Liberty and as we pulled out of the parking lot Jake accidentally hopped the curb. The GPS wasn't working, and Alex's iPhone only had a few minutes left of juice. Wagner barked orders at Schultheis as he tried to plug in the coordinates before running out of power.
At the first house, the man who answered the door grabbed their Huntsman materials and promptly said good day.
"At least he didn't slam the door," Wagner said.
The next stop was an apartment complex, where you have to be buzzed in by a resident. Wanger began calling apartments from the call box. One person hung up the minute he said, "Jon Hunt---"
"Uh, Jake," Schultheis said, standing behind him, as Wagner punched in the key for the next voter. "There's a sign that says 'No Soliciting.'"
The next several homes were more busts. The students left Huntsman leaflets hanging on the doorknobs along with printed copies of a recent New York Times article by Nate Silver that suggested Huntsman could be gaining some momentum. "Wow," Wagner said quietly as he trudged up a hill. "Today's really slow."
Finally, an undecided voter, a woman, answered her door. She had a horse-size Great Dane at her side and wanted to talk. The boys straightened up. While the dog sniffed awkwardly around their crotches, they talked with the woman for several minutes about their man, how he's the most electable, the most level-headed and--going slightly off message--why Ron Paul sucks.
"I'm just looking for who can beat Obama," the woman said, telling them that she'll make her decision on the day of the primaries.
Even though she didn't commit to support Huntsman, the boys were pumped. "BOOM!" Wagner shouted just as the woman shut her door.
The two remained upbeat as they continued down the block. After another series of misfires, including one home with a "Gingrich 2012" sign in the yard and another where Romney literature had already been dropped, they knocked on the door of the skeptical man in the Princeton sweatshirt.
Wagner started with the regular pitch. The man interrupted him.
"You really think Huntsman's the most conservative?" he said, his face scowling. "More than Gingrich? Santorum?"
"I do," Wagner said, defending the candidate he gave up his Christmas vacation to fight for.
"Well, I do think Huntsman has a lot going for him," the man conceded, and then transitioned to the 2008 race, calling John McCain "a senile old fart" and "that idiot."
Wagner, who worked for McCain in 2008, politely changed the subject back to Huntsman.
Schultheis and Wagner gently sparred with the man for several minutes. Wagner rattled off factoid after factoid about Huntsman. As Wagner hammered away at his talking points, the man's skepticism begins to fade.
"You may have a converted me," the man, smiling warmly, said before saying goodbye. "You guys make a very strong case."
As they turned to leave, Jake punched his fists in the air.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" he yelled, this time certainly before the man closed the door.
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