As the motor of the big white charter bus idled in anticipation of its nine-hour haul to Sedona, Ariz., Daniel Tamm rose to rev the spirits of the Southern Californians aboard.
"People ask, 'Why Arizona? It's a red state,' " he said. "But some of the latest polls show we're only a percentage point behind."
The 51 John Kerry volunteers filling every narrow seat cheered.
What's more, continued Tamm, a Kerry campaign leader in the San Fernando Valley, "internal polls show that independents there are breaking 2-to-1 for Kerry-Edwards."
Bus passengers whooped and hollered.
"Remember," he concluded, "you are the face of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Sedona this weekend."
Tamm disembarked into the morning sunlight at the Burbank Airport Hilton parking lot. The front door sucked closed, and the Democratic busload was on its way to the historically Republican but now "swing" state next door.
Those aboard were among an estimated 2,000 California Democrats who, confident of a Kerry victory here, have, like volunteers from other so-called safe states, been journeying to states where the presidential election is more closely contested.
This trip, which took place earlier this month, was organized by a volunteer group called Kerry-Edwards SoCal Grassroots. Spokeswomen for the California GOP and the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state said they know of no such efforts by Republicans.
One of the bus riders was a trim man wearing a navy blue Cal baseball cap.
Ahmed Kassem, 64, was born in Cairo, and now lives in Sierra Madre. An engineering consultant and onetime Fulbright scholar at UC Berkeley, Kassem has been a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years. He was a registered Republican until earlier this year. He became a Democrat because he opposed the invasion of Iraq.
A Son in Iraq
Since February, Kassem said, he has had difficulty sleeping. His only child, Tarek, a 25-year-old Army reservist, was sent to Iraq that month. He is a member of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, which is rebuilding schools and sewers in Baghdad.
Whenever there are reports of American soldiers killed in that city, Kassem and his wife, Katherine, can scarcely breathe.
When they learn he is not among the dead, he says, "you get elated for only a couple of seconds because then you start thinking about the poor parents who did lose their children."
This bus trip was his fifth to Arizona to knock on doors for Kerry.
A few seats behind Kassem, 18-year-old Sonseeahray Good and her boyfriend, Eric Stein, teased each other and fiddled with their cellphones.
Stein, an eager 29-year-old sometime actor/filmmaker who works days as an office assistant, described his success turning Republicans into Democrats.
Motivated initially by what he considers Bush's poor record on the environment, he filled out a voter registration card this summer and mailed it to his Republican father. His dad signed it, he said, and changed parties.
His most dedicated convert is his girlfriend, a fashion store clerk. A self-described "daddy's girl" whose father is a "hard-core Republican," Good had adopted her father's political ways without much thought.
"When Eric and I met, I said, 'Oh, George Bush is great, a real man's man,' " Good recalled. "And Eric said, 'Uh, no.' "
So Good began reading political websites, she said, "and now, I'm a Democrat -- a big, fat liberal."
The couple, who live in Sherman Oaks, were on their first campaign bus trip, but they had ventured on their own to Kingman, Ariz., Good's hometown, to hand out Kerry literature in July, August and September.
Outside, the Inland Empire slipped past the bus's windows, obscured by yellow-brown smog ("Bush air," riders called it). Inside, the voices of Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton, James Carville and other figures of a bygone presidency boomed from speakers. The film, "The Hunting of the President," was playing on the bus' video monitors.
As the bus rolled through the desert, the group's leaders took turns at a microphone, instructing the volunteers about what lay ahead.
On arriving in Arizona, they would watch that night's second presidential debate, then staff a telephone bank. Early the next day, they would canvass neighborhoods using lists compiled by the Arizona Kerry-Edwards campaign. Their targets were "persuadable voters" and "low-efficacy Democrats" -- registered Democrats who often skip voting.
They were to focus on getting people to fill out applications for vote-by-mail ballots.
Hours later, the bar of the Vista Cantina in Sedona periodically exploded in cheers or laughter as the bus riders ate dinner and watched the second presidential debate.
On the restaurant's patio, Jennifer Axsom, 22, spoke about the California volunteers. She is the out-of-state volunteer coordinator for the Arizona Democratic Coordinated Campaign.
Axsom, who graduated from Harvard University in June, said more than a thousand Californians have come to Arizona to volunteer, by far the largest out-of-state group.