Gary Knoblock was heading to Denver when a flat tire stalled him outside of Casper, Wyo. At that time, Knoblock just happened to put in a call to his boss, whom he calls "the all-knowing Buddha," back in Boston.
That's how Knoblock found himself winging to Phoenix, where he wound up sleeping in a chicken coop decorated with a neon sculpture of a cactus.Such is the life of a political refugee.
For more than a year, Knoblock, a New York native, has taken his sleeping bag on the road, talking up the Duke. He is a member of a national campaign staff now crisscrossing the country, his life consumed with propelling Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis into the White House this November. Marching orders no questions allowed come from Richard Ybarra, a.k.a the all-knowing Buddha, Dukakis' Westernstates field director.
Utah controls 27 delegates at the Democratic national convention. It's the job of Knoblock and Bill Dunbar and Jeff Goldenberg and Nancy Warner to see that a majority of them are wearing Dukakis buttons.
Dukakis' campaign masterminds think Utah's caucuses, scheduled Monday, are important enough that they sent four national staffers, as well as Andrea Dukakis, the candidate's 23-year-old daughter, here to generate support.
His Democratic challenger, Jesse Jackson, has sent John Norris, Western states coordinator, to organize Utah support before Monday's meetings.
"Jesse has about a 50-member field staff. Most of them are 20 to 25 years old, and they don't mind living out of the back of their cars, sleeping on couches and floors or whatever," Norris said.
In contrast, Republican presidential hopeful George Bush, who has just about sewed up his party's nomination, has a Salt Lake headquarters, but hasn't sent any national campaign workers to staff it.
Every four years, hundreds of young Americans like Knoblock take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference in the course of the future. This corps of youthful workers pass up textbooks or career-starting positions in order to crisscross the country on the presidential campaign trail.
No matter who the candidate is, grass-roots level politicking is not a glamorous life. The key words on any campaign are low budget. Political ideals don't fatten paychecks.
According to Knoblock, bed is often little more than a sleeping bag on a floor of some supporter's home, be it an "Arizona-esque" chicken coop or a more palatial address.
For the political vagabond, the only constant appears to be the unknown.
"Next Tuesday, we're going to be in a different state, and we have no idea where," Knoblock said.
Council Bluffs, Iowa, or Casper, Wyo., or Malad, Idaho. If it's April, it must be Salt Lake City. Next it could be Oregon or California.
Only the names and locations change.
The charge that of convincing voters to take proprietorship of their candidate's message remains the same.
The national campaign workers in Utah face a pretty formidable task, rustling up Democratic support in a state that four years ago boasted of being the most Republican in the nation.
"We got over the border and felt a little conspicuous," Knoblock said. "But this is more of a two-party state than I expected."
Knoblock and his three Dukakis co-workers assigned to Utah are seeing the country via the rural route, working out of generic offices, walls plastered with maps of voting districts and campaign propaganda. Wherever they are, the inevitable phone lists will litter the room.
Every campaign draws the hangers-on, the supporters who are more interested in the television cameras and gala fund-raisers than the issues.
You want glamour? You won't find it here. The national staffers, assigned to a state to organize the last-minute blitz before the primaries or caucuses, are the backbone of any presidential campaign. They swoop in at the last minute, to build on the efforts of local organizers. They are the grunts, or to borrow Utah terminology, the "worker bees."
Knoblock drives an old, junky sedan American-made, of course. The three Dukakis bumper stickers plastered to the trunk speak of its owner's obsession. The stickers are attached to the trunk out of necessity. The car has no rear bumper.
Money isn't the draw. "We make enough that we all eat, basically. Nobody's suffering malnutrition yet. Nobody is saving any money." The low pay usually attracts young, unmarried vagabonds.
Families are left behind, back with their normal lives in what they now term "la-la" lands. "They laugh when I call them from a different state every week," said Warner, who hails from Seattle. Tired from months on the campaign trail, the young, still-idealistic workers say they are gaining an education, as they find out their privileged lives are not necessarily American prerequisites.
Part of the staffers' work is to make uncommitted voters become committed, to challenge voters to use the caucus process to send a message to the national political parties. Through caucus meetings, Utah voters can help decide who will be the country's next president, even though the state doesn't host primary elections.
Some voters are intimidated by the caucus process, Dunbar said. They think they have to be invited to go, or that only active political types have a vote. Instead, Dukakis' campaigners tell people that mass meetings are just a bunch of neighbors getting together. They can be fun.
"I've started telling people that caucuses are a giant game of Red Rover," Dunbar said.