Reporting from Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Joni Scotter was ticked.
She'd been promised a photo with Minnesota's visiting governor as reward for collecting more voter e-mails than any Republican volunteer in Iowa. She drove more than two hours to see him. But after Tim Pawlenty gave his speech at the Des Moines fairgrounds, with Scotter whooping it up in front, he left.
Before long, word of her disappointment reached Minnesota, and Pawlenty has been making amends ever since — which is not a bad move if, as seems evident, he's running for president.
The 2012 campaign will surely touch on many big things, like taxes, war and the economy. But in Iowa, where the presidential balloting begins in about 13 months, the GOP contest is focused on something far more intimate: the courtship of a few highly prized activists whose efforts are vital to navigating the state's sprawling caucus system.
These unpaid workers — maybe 20 or so on the Republican side — make volunteering a full-time vocation. They spend countless hours making phone calls, e-mailing, raising money, chauffeuring candidates, sweeping the trash and turning out the lights at campaign headquarters well after most others have gone to bed.
One of the most sought-after this election season is Scotter, 69, who gave up quilting and laid aside the autobiographies she loves reading for a blur of 18- and 19-hour campaign days that start with the e-mails she checks first thing — about 6:30 a.m., after feeding the cat — and end long after the party meetings she attends nearly every night.
"I'm addicted," she said with a short burst of laughter. "There's always another event, a meeting, a candidate coming through."
Scotter has met just about every one of the Republican Party's prospective White House hopefuls.
Indiana Rep. Mike Pence asked to friend her on Facebook. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich playfully scolded her for missing his stop at the Iowa State Fair. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney singled her out during his most recent visit, telling the crowd that he knew he was in Iowa as soon as he heard her trademark "woooooo."
As for Pawlenty, he found Scotter in the audience on a later trip to Iowa and posed for her promised picture. His wife followed up with a handwritten note. A few weeks after that, Pawlenty called just to chat.
"They're wonderful people," Scotter said of the couple, though she remains uncommitted while the Republican field takes shape: "I want to be fair to them all."
Scotter was raised in a small South Dakota town, the oldest of four girls. Her parents were politically aware, but not politically active. Her father, a machinist, was a Democrat who wrote letters to newspaper editors decrying the military-industrial complex. Her stay-at-home mom was a staunch Republican who loved Richard Nixon and was never the same after he quit the presidency.
Scotter herself was more casual in her allegiances.
The first presidential ballot she cast, in 1968, had nothing to do with issues. She was working as a beautician and Christine Humphrey, the chatty mother of Democratic Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, was a client. Each week, during her shampoo and wave, Mrs. Humphrey went on about her devoted Hubert; Scotter figured that "any son who loved his mother that much had to be the best."
She voted for Democrats George McGovern in 1972 and Walter F. Mondale in 1984, because they seemed destined to lose and she pitied them. She didn't care for Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, however — one seemed inept, the other predatory — and voted for their Republican opponents.
Politics simply wasn't a priority for Scotter, who married, raised two boys and moved about the Midwest as her husband served in the Air Force, then pursued a career as an agriculture economist. "To tell the truth, I never thought about Democrat or Republican," she said. "I was voting for the person."
Scotter related her story with unflagging good cheer, even the difficult parts about losing a baby girl and battling thyroid and breast cancer; it's a buoyancy that candidates welcome to their campaign, as a way to keep others upbeat. Scotter once read that everyone has a theme song, and she claims two as her own: "Pick Yourself Up" and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." Over breakfast in a busy coffee shop, she sang a bit of each. People looked, but Scotter didn't notice or seem to care.
No one is going to back a candidate for president because of the volunteers they attract. But the support of someone like Scotter, with contacts in all 99 Iowa counties, can be a big help.
Organizing for the caucuses, which are held for just a few hours on a frigid winter night, is extremely labor-intensive. It's not easy getting people to venture out when their breath turns to icicles; that's where persistence and, perhaps more important, personal relationships come in.