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Inside Politics

Young and ready to fight -- for free

By Richard Quest

Richard Quest on the campaign trail.

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PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire (CNN) -- It is the look in their eyes that warns: You are in the presence of youthful optimism.

A messianic glaze that implies they have found a political savior in a candidate who at the very least can put their country to rights. Oh, and can probably solve poverty, bring world peace and cure disease at the same time.

The thousands of unpaid volunteers who have flocked into New Hampshire have come from all over the United States to support one candidate or another.

From Michigan, from Maryland, from New York, even from Florida -- where frankly you need your head examined to swap the warm winter sun for the freezing cold snowy conditions up here -- these travelers are on a mission. To exhort and extol. To convince and cajole. To fight to the end.

It is a wonderful quirk of the U.S. election system that thousands of supporters, mostly college students, trek vast distances across the country to take part in a political campaign.

They are students who have decided that their man is the only one to be the leader of the Free World, and they are going to do everything they can to make sure it happens.

That usually includes standing on street corners in large groups brandishing posters and placards, making telephone calls to solicit money and doing whatever they can to drum up support.

In small states like New Hampshire there is almost a carnival atmosphere when two or more groups of supporters meet up.

In Portsmouth, on the state's short coast, there were three large groups from different campaigns on one stretch of road, each bellowing the beauty of their candidate, hoping to drown out the opposition. These youngsters truly believe in their man.

"We are sleeping on floors and had to pay our own tickets to get here," one acned youth told me. "It's worth it because this is where we need to be to get the support for Howard Dean."

You can substitute any other candidate's name. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards -- all have a legion of unpaid young volunteers taking part in something that approaches a rite of political passage for America's youth interested in public affairs.

For those who turn up, there is usually nothing more involved than simply being able to take part.

Those volunteers who are in New Hampshire are probably the lucky ones, because this is a small state that gets disproportionate attention. They know there is a very good chance they will see their candidate several times.

Once the election process moves nationwide, the young unpaid volunteers will often have to take their man on trust, and very probably will never actually get sight of him.

When the candidate does finally come into sight, there is a sort of hush. It doesn't last long, because for the volunteers this is often the moment they have been waiting for -- to get up close and personal with the man they have decided is truly great.

Silence is replaced by chanting, and the imaginative use slogans such as "Go, Go, Go ... Joe, Joe, Joe." And the candidate seems downright humbled, knowing that his campaign is riding along on the backs of these unpaid volunteers, without whom he might as well have stayed at home.

What is interesting is that when you talk to more senior political aides, journalists and policy wonks, everyone remembers their first campaign -- whatever dreadful old cynics they have since turned into.

Campaigners show their enthusiasm for their candidate.
Campaigners show their enthusiasm for their candidate.

They still remember the terrible food, the numbing cold, and usually the awful smell of defeat. And crying late into the night after the voters had unceremoniously dumped their man.

Even though they may not be being paid to attend this year's political circus, they cherish the time when they were part of that massive unpaid youthful army fighting for someone they believed would change the world.

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