Freezing For The Cause

Chris Hansen-Nelson's gray hair stands out in this crowd. Out of the six hundred or so Bill Bradley volunteers staying at the Nashua Boys and Girls club tonight, there are only a handful of veteran campaigners. Nelson came of age in 1972, the first year in which 18-year-olds were allowed to vote. "We were all pretty jazzed about that," he says. "We were old enough to die, and now we were also old enough to vote." In his salad days, he says, he participated in many political events, but they were mostly of the anti-establishment, down-with-the-government, burn-Nixon-in-effigy sort.

But now, in his mid-forties, Nelson works as a documentation officer at a securities firm and worries about his son in high school. Today, he's wearing a bright yellow baseball cap, and a guitar bandoleer style, and he's volunteering to get a presidential candidate elected into the system he once fought against. "I'll play the guitar tomorrow," he promises. "The best political events I have ever been to always involve singing."

Every candidate is talking about inspiring young people, but Bradley seems to have actually gotten the hang of it. The press corps at the Holiday Inn fantasize about making Hawaii the first-in-the-nation primary; the students and young professionals here seem to relish the opportunity to freeze for a cause.

They'll get their chance. "This is grassroots, Honey," a woman in a faded "Bradley 2000" shirt explains repeatedly, welcoming the busloads of volunteers to the gym's concrete floor. "At least we have heat." This proves to be the first campaign promise broken this cycle.

Some of these chilly volunteers are archetypal. David Tessitor, one of the campaign's post-collegiate "elderly, couldn't be more on message if he had been faxed the talking points. "Bradley has something that's caught young people's attention. He's brought a light people flock to in a time when the government is so bought, you can't get anywhere." Tessitor shakes his head and removes a shabby hat. "Today, young people are proud not to be registered to vote -- and who can blame them? They feel like they're participating in a corrupt process. Somehow, little by little, it's Bradley who's changing that."

Eighteen-year-old Holly Teresi of Pittsburgh is equally articulate. She is the youngest member of the Bradley team, but like many of her compatriots, she has clear political aspirations of her own. "I came because I'm inspired. [Bradley] is the only one talking about issues I'm interested in. Everyone else is talking about money, and Bradley's talking about gays in the military, abortion, affirmative action -- things that have to do with my life."

Others prefer to display their loyalty through suffering. One student boasts that he slept on an apple last night, but was so tired he didn't even notice it.

By 12:30 a.m., the gym floor is littered with sleeping bags and leveled campaigners, but several hard-core junkies are still watching re-runs of debates or late-night interviews with the candidates. Here, talk shows are like prizefights, prompting cheers and raillery from the crowds. "Oh come on," yells one guy, shaking his fist at George W., "this man is the anti-Christ."

The wake up call comes at 7:15, nearly an hour later than planned. "Wake up, get ready to make history," the coordinator bellows. Few respond immediately to the call.

In the lobby, campaign cuisine is served: bread, peanut butter, jelly, and Oreo cookies. It's breakfast. And lunch, which all volunteers are now wrapping in tin foil. A TV is playing overhead, offering campaign coverage of an ever-rigidly-smiling Steve Forbes uttering tinny-sounding pleas for votes. "Take me to your leader," a student mimics, and the crowd cracks up.

Too large to fit into one room, the crowd is split into two groups -- one downstairs on the basketball court, one upstairs by the pool and foosball tables. Here, the volunteers are given maps and instructions just before they stream out of the club into the cold New Hampshire neighborhoods to preach to the undecideds.