The rockets' red glare illuminates the giant American flag, the battle flag, flying atop the USS Shiloh. Below it, a crowd of sailors has gathered to watch as Tomahawk missiles soar into the night and jettison their glowing booster rockets, which, in the distance, appear to fall lazily into the calm waters of the Persian Gulf.
With each new salvo, thunderous cracks and intense flashes of light elicit cheers from the crew. Outkast's "Bombs Over Baghdad" sounds tinny over the 1-MC, the Shiloh's public-address system, but it's well received by most of the revelers. Some take pictures while others fire up cigars to commemorate the occasion. The war party is in full swing and it's hard to blame anyone for getting excited. After months of waiting in the port of Um Qasr for something-anything-to happen, it seems the crew is finally one day closer to going home.
But like a handful of other sailors watching the missiles take flight, Second Class Petty Officer Kevin McCormick isn't celebrating. Each launch emits a cloud of noxious gases that cause his eyes to tear, his nostrils to burn and the acrid taste of ammonia to settle on his tongue. Despite it all, it's his gut that's bothering him. As an aviation electronics technician who maintains missile guidance systems, he knows all too well where the Tomahawks are going and what will happen when they get there. He heads to his bunk to pray.
About an hour later, in the galley of the ship, McCormick and some of his crewmates watch via CNN, along with the rest of the world, as the Shiloh's missiles arrive in downtown Baghdad. Buildings erupt in fiery plumes, providing the "shock and awe" the media was promised, but the crowd of sailors becomes more subdued as the realities of war begin to sink in.
It's been a long time since McCormick has thought of that night in March, more than a year ago, when the Shiloh's crew fired some of the very first shots of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, ringing doorbells on University City's Erlanger Street amid a sea of uniform, single-story homes, it all seems a lifetime away. For that matter, it may as well have happened to another person.
Once a self-described poster boy for the Republican Party, McCormick was singled out and honored by Republican congressmen after returning home in March. He says that at the time he stood behind the commander-in-chief's decision to go to war.
"I was a full-blown supporter of going over to Iraq and doing something about weapons of mass destruction," he says. "I was sold on it. I thought it was the right thing to do."
But as time passed with still no sign of WMDs, McCormick became convinced that he, and the rest of the world, had been deceived. It's a transgression he says he can't forgive.
"I'm about as pissed off at Bush as anyone could be," he says "Not only was I a part of it and buying into it, but I was actually fighting for it. I feel like my time, my ideals, my beliefs were compromised by something that's not real.... It's not right."
Still fresh from a five-year stint in the Navy but sporting an entirely new political perspective, the 25-year-old refers to himself now as "a born-again civilian" and is reveling in his newfound ability to speak freely. That's why it seems so surprising that McCormick jumped at the opportunity to re-enlist. However, this time around he's signed on as a foot soldier in a very different fighting force. It's a grassroots army with the mission of bringing change to the Oval Office and the battle to your doorstep.
Every day the troops gather at the Grassroots Campaigns headquarters located in a weary-looking office building on the outskirts of Ocean Beach. They start arriving at noon, and by 1:30 p.m. the small office suite is bustling.
In the "War Room," a homemade counter announcing "regime change in 140 days" hangs on the wall next to a map of San Diego labeled "The Battle Field." On the opposite wall hangs a replica of a flag that George Washington carried into battle against the British and King George during the War of Independence. Above it a sign reads: "Now it's our turn to triumph over evil. Down with King George W!"
It's McCormick's first day, and he and seven other new recruits have gathered here around a conference table to learn about their new jobs. They each take a turn introducing themselves and explaining why they responded to an ad announcing "summer jobs to beat Bush." They're an eclectic bunch of veteran activists and virgin politicos, and all of their answers are slightly different-the economy, the war, the largest deficit in history, violations of civil liberties, environmental degradation-but each one ends with some variation of "Bush has got to go." Maybe it's simply peer pressure, but no one says they are just here for the weekly paycheck.
Once everyone has had an opportunity to speak, Lindsay Romack, a spunky 22-year-old Chicago native who moved here temporarily to assist the San Diego campaign, explains that they are all here to help the Democratic National Committee (DNC) win back the White House and Congress.
"It's important that we reenergize this party and make people aware of how important it really is that they do go out and vote and that they get their friends out to the polling places," she says. "And we especially want to energize those people who might not have contributed before or might not have voted before.... We definitely want to get them to look our way."
But Romack tells the troops that once they are in the field there's no use wasting time trying to convert Bush supporters. Ultimately, this campaign is not designed to change minds but to raise money.
To make that happen, the troops will descend on a new San Diego neighborhood every afternoon, and each soldier will knock on roughly 100 doors with the hope of talking to half as many people. If they each raise $100, roughly their daily quota, it will be considered an excellent outing.
"The more houses you hit, the more money you will get," Romack says, adding that the San Diego operation is part of a larger effort by Grassroots Campaigns, a Boston-based independent political contracting firm, which is running the DNC's nationwide grassroots fundraising campaign.
She says the more than $250,000 expected to be raised in San Diego will go to swing states like Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Oregon to help fund voter-registration drives and mobilize democratic voters on Election Day.
By the looks on several faces, it's obvious that the idea of going door-to-door begging for contributions doesn't seem as appealing as converting Republicans. And how much of a difference can just $100 a day really make when Bush and the Republicans have already raised more than a quarter billion?
Currently, more than 1,000 foot soldiers-a huge staff for a grassroots effort-are working to contact 30,000 new Democratic donors each month. If everything goes as planned, they will meet face to face with 180,000 voters and raise more than $15 million before November. That kind of money and support is what it will take for the DNC to win those critical swing states.
Since the last presidential election was decided by 537 votes and this year's contest is expected to be just as close, a single county in any one of those states could be the deciding factor. A lone canvasser's haul of $100 might pay for two full tanks of gas in a van that brings dozens of elderly voters to polling stations or help pay for an ad that reaches thousands of voters. Along those lines, an entire week's worth of one canvasser's earnings could translate to hundreds of votes-quite possibly the difference between John Kerry and four more years of George W. Bush.
But before the group's newest employees can help the DNC win the election, they first have to learn the rap. It's the spiel that the canvassers give at every door, a refined and polished sales pitch that touches on reasons why Bush should be given the boot and how a potential donor can help make sure it happens. The goal is to know it by heart by the end of the day.
The recruits pair off and take turns reading the rap to each other and working through different scenarios. In the adjacent room, a group of seasoned veterans- canvassers starting their second day as political operatives-learn techniques they can use to persuade donors to write larger checks. They also pair off to practice, and before long the office echoes with various versions of the rap.
Looking around the office at the 30 workers, it's an impressively diverse crowd, and it is even more amazing to consider that this space was completely empty just two weeks ago. Predominantly comprised of white males in their 20s, there are still plenty of women on staff and the canvassers range in age from 17 to 77. Some have literally quit their day jobs or passed up better paying offers to join the cause. Several law school students are skipping out on summer internships, and people have come here from Mexico, the Midwest and the East Coast to lend a hand. Others hail from as far away as Spain, India, New Zealand and Iraq.
Eventually, the entire staff breaks for a late lunch, and most of them head down the street to Tommy's, a small Tex-Mex joint where one Texan's misfortune has proved to be another Texan's goldmine. Every day the grassroots campaigners crowd Tommy Ramirez's sidewalk tables while he and his mother hustle to fill their orders. The talk around the lunch tables is of vacation, work and politics until someone floats a rumor that Ramirez, a San Antonio native, is a Republican.
"I'm on Kerry's side now," he says with a laugh when confronted. "I have no choice, otherwise I'll lose my afternoon rush."
Still, none of the troops has bothered to hit him up for a donation.
"Is that the deal," he asks, when told that his customers are fundraising. "You mean all of the money they spend here, they want it back?"
Ramirez gets serious for a minute and says he also wants Bush out of office and is happy to be doing his part feeding the troops. Behind him, his mother chops chicken on the grill with a cleaver and shakes her head at each mention of the president's name.
After lunch, everyone reconvenes in the War Room to receive their geographical assignments and divide into teams. It's crowded and hot, but no one complains. Isaac Goldstein, a 22-year-old with steely blue eyes and a ring of curls protruding from the edges of his baseball cap, steps up to deliver the daily pep talk. Goldstein, who moved here a few weeks ago from Massachusetts to help manage the campaign, tells a few Bush jokes before getting down to business. He says that yesterday the combined total was more than $1,700, shy of the $2,000 goal. Despite the shortfall, he is raising his expectations, setting tonight's goal at $2,500. Before sending the troops into the field, he gathers them around him in a huddle for a quick motivational cheer. They break with a resounding "Bush sucks!"
In most settings, all of this would seem cheesy and unnatural-at times almost cultish-and it would be easy to just write off all of the people gathered here as loons, true believers, aging hippies and naïve college students-all of whom have been fooled into believing that one person can really change the world. But the energy in the office is infectious, and their willingness to sacrifice for their mission confirms their authenticity.
Somehow, it's not surprising that the seeds of revolution have found fertile ground in a stuffy office on the outskirts of Ocean Beach.
Fundraising door to door isn't fun. It's McCormick's second day with Grassroots Campaigns, his first solo day in the field, and after working Erlanger Street for nearly an hour, he's knocked on a lot of doors that no one has opened. At the houses where someone did answer, he met several people who politely told him to go away, a few others that asked him to come back later and a Republican gardener who appeared to seriously consider spraying him with her hose. So far, he hasn't raised a dime.
Part of the problem might be McCormick's rap. Today he has written his own, incorporating his experience in the military, and he's having a tough time with it. He gets tongue-tied and mumbles a bit and it's not always immediately clear that he's here to collect money for the DNC. However, he inevitably returns to the phrase that unfailingly gets his message across. "I'm here to help get Bush out of office."
Of course, this is San Diego, a historically conservative military town, and it promises to be one of the toughest battlegrounds the canvassers will face in the United States.
However, Michelle Howard, national vice president of client services for Grassroots Campaigns, says that because Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans in San Diego, it's that much more important to reach out to them.
"In a red [Republican] city in a blue [Democrat] state, the people who are supporters are kind of that much stronger because they are surrounded," she says. "So their neighbors might not be supporters but they are likely to be stronger supporters." And she adds that unlike San Diegans, citizens in a DNC-friendly city like Boston have already been hit up repeatedly for contributions.
While San Diego Democrats may be ripe for the picking, finding them proves to be a difficult job. Sore feet, loneliness, boredom and a lack of toilet facilities are all part of the gig, and it takes thick skin to be successful. The daily rewards are small when compared with the frustrations, and the big payoff in November, far from assured, is still a long way off. As Howard puts it, "canvassing is boot camp for politics." Many of the troops quickly learn that it's just not for them. Of yesterday's class of eight new recruits, nearly half wash out within the first week.
But McCormick says he is dedicated and encourages his fellow canvassers to look at the bigger picture.
"I want them to think about the troops that are in Iraq and what they are going through and the kind of fears that they are facing," he says. "The least of their concerns are where to find a place to go to the bathroom. They are fighting for something that they don't have a choice in.... We have the ability to speak out and to go against something that we don't believe in.... The only way that we can get them out is to try to match it with at least some of the commitment that they have for what they are doing over there."
Eventually at the door of Yoshi Kreelman, McCormick's persistence yields dividends.
"I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Kerry either," Kreelman tells him, handing over a check for $30. "But it's the lesser of two evils."
With a swish of the pen, McCormick is in the black and with three hours of canvassing still ahead of him he's on track to making quota.
A few doors later, McCormick's boss, Tommy Jarvis, shows up to check in and see how things are going. More than 6 feet tall with sandy brown hair, Jarvis has the clean-cut good looks of a big brother in a cereal commercial. He says it's the reason he's often mistaken for a Republican.
Jarvis hangs with McCormick for a few minutes, offering him a few tips to improve his rap before heading off in his pickup to check in on his other employees.
Today Jarvis has six teams scattered throughout Pacific Beach, La Jolla and University City. It's the most people he has had in the field since opening the office two weeks ago, and things are finally starting to come together.
It was only a few months ago that a disillusioned Jarvis quit a cushy job as a manager at a Pepsi distributorship in San Francisco with the idea of working in Washington D.C. and changing the system. Instead, he ended up at a Howard Dean rally where he picked up a Grassroots Campaigns flier. Days later he was in Boston learning the ins and outs of running a fundraising campaign.
In May, Jarvis was sent to San Diego to set up the office. He started with a cell phone, making calls from a friend's couch, which doubled as his overnight accommodations. After orienting himself in a new city, locating suitable office space and bringing in several assistant directors, Jarvis started recruiting and training his foot soldiers. Equipped with just one printer-less laptop, they copied maps by hand from a Thomas Guide to San Diego County, highlighting canvassed streets with a colored pencil as they went.
"I've never worked harder in my life," Jarvis says, pulling into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant to use the bathroom.
However, the 16-hour days and weekends spent at the office are bearing fruit. Both the total amount of funds collected and the number of canvassers on staff have nearly tripled in the month since he started the local campaign. But Jarvis says it's not the measurable successes that drive him.
"Just having people out there who are energized to do what they can, that's the enjoyable part for me," he says.
Jarvis eventually tracks down another one of his canvassers on Cozzens Street a few blocks from where he left McCormick. With four days of canvassing experience under his belt, Dave Penndorph's rap is a lot smoother than McCormick's, but he has managed to grab only one $20 donation. Still, he's upbeat and happy to see Jarvis. They visit a few doors together, striking out each time.
Penndorph floats a theory that it's possible to tell if people are Democrats or Republicans just by looking at their homes. He says he thinks SUVs and American flags are sure signs of hostile territory while hybrid cars or Volvos in the driveway can indicate a democratic household.
Jarvis says he thinks it's generally true, but he isn't happy about it.
"If they have a big American flag and a "God bless America' sign in their yard, I'm still going to go to that house," he says. "There is no way in hell that I'm going to let the Republicans own that flag."
It's nearly 9:30 p.m. by the time the last of the troops return to the office. Most quickly turn in their paperwork and head home as Goldstein enters their totals into a daily report that will be sent to the national office. McCormick brought in $65, which, combined with the funds collected by the other canvassers working the University City neighborhood, totals nearly $300. Some of the other teams have done better, but not well enough to reach the day's goal of $2,500. The grand total is $1,836, just $35 more than yesterday's, but Jarvis and Goldstein agree it's better than expected.
Neither one of them lets it get them down and it turns out to be for a good reason. While they have no way of knowing it at the moment, next week their efforts will eclipse those of the San Francisco office, one of the largest in the country. And that following weekend, due to a large response from individuals who want to participate but have other commitments during the week, they will launch their first Saturday fundraising campaign.
With the office quieter than it's been since they arrived there early this morning, Jarvis and Goldstein spread a pile of checks and bills on the carpet and prepare the evening's deposit, double-checking to make sure that all of the numbers add up. They even count the pile of spare change. According to the counter hanging on the wall in the War Room, there are only 138 days left until Election Day. Every penny counts.