As President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry try to close the deal with millions of voters over the next two days, each will rely on what operatives are calling record-breaking voter mobilization efforts.
The salesmen-in-chief will draw the headlines and television crews, but responsibility for delivering their voters to the polls Tuesday now lies in the hands of hundreds of thousands of mostly faceless workers. They labor for operations as vastly different as the candidates they serve.
For the Bush campaign, the final push has been engineered mostly by a single top-down organization that sets goals in Washington and relies on a vast network of neighborhood volunteers.
Kerry, in contrast, depends on a conglomeration of party, labor and issue organizations that use multiple messages to target divergent audiences.
Regardless of style, the growing anticipation was palpable in both camps this weekend.
"This feels just like we're waiting for a hurricane," said Dan Gelber, a Democratic state legislator and Miami-Dade County campaign chairman for Kerry. "We know what's coming. We know what it might entail. But still it's unfathomable."
Thousands of volunteers continued to arrive Saturday in battleground states such as New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida -- most flying or driving in from states where the presidential race appears not to be close.
So many Democrats flooded the Miami area that a second wave of volunteers, calling themselves "Kerry comforters," were being deployed to distribute water and snacks. Volunteers for both sides talked of vacations willingly lost. They described an odd emotional dissonance, saying it was thrilling to be part of what they called a once-in-a-lifetime fight, but fretting at the size of the task at hand.
Republican retiree Esther Morgan, who joined a dozen volunteers at a phone bank for Bush in suburban Milwaukee, said she would remind herself after difficult phone calls that she'd once sold carpet cleaner by phone.
"And that," she said, "was even harder."
Bush-Cheney '04 officials say they have 1.6 million volunteers across the nation, and an organization that reaches down to the precinct level in most voting locations in the dozen most competitive states -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
With a pyramid organizational structure that has been compared to Amway or Tupperware, the campaign has set goals for volunteer recruitment, registrations and voter contacts.
"It's micro-targeting," said spokesman Reed Dickens. "You have to run TV and radio ads, but the most persuasive form of communication is person-to-person communication with someone you trust on issues you care about."
The ground forces the Democrats are martialing this weekend, in contrast, come from many sources -- led by the party's 250,000 volunteers, 226,000 union members and more than 140,000 workers from two big-money liberal organizations -- America Coming Together and MoveOn PAC.
Grasping to describe the magnitude of the work at hand, spokespersons for both sides flung numbers.
In Wisconsin alone, Bush volunteers said they were poised to make 1.5 million voter contacts in the last week of the campaign. Nationwide, America Coming Together, a pro-Kerry group, was ready to dispatch an estimated 5,100 rented vans to drive voters to the polls. It armed its paid canvassers and volunteers with 20,000 digital cameras to record instances of voter intimidation.
Like football coaches before a big game, top strategists for the two sides took pains not to let their teams grow complacent.
Michael Whouley, general election manager for the Democratic National Committee, described the party's huge volunteer effort, then demurred: "I'm not underestimating my opponent. They will have the best operation Republicans have ever had."
Strategist Matthew Dowd called Bush's get-out-the-vote effort "much, much, much more extensive than any other" run by the Republicans. But he quickly added: "The question we have is whether our operation is equal to their operation. And I don't think we will know the answer to that until election day."
As the final events unfolded, the final forces were being brought into place.
At Democratic Party headquarters in Albuquerque, a representative scene took place: As about 150 volunteers jumped off buses from El Paso, each received a tortilla and a bowl of posole (Mexican pork soup) from one volunteer. Then another handed them a manila envelope filled with voter addresses and maps.
While their effort was homegrown in most places, Republican volunteers also hit the road -- most notably at least 5,500 activists from the Washington, D.C., area, who fanned out to battleground states.