CRESTON, Iowa — After all the scripted appearances by presidential candidates and despite the millions of dollars they've spent on glossy TV ads, the battle for Iowa's voters Thursday night will be decided in towns such as this one.
There's not much to Creston — a worn rail-depot town in south-central Iowa, population 7,400 and headed south — yet Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have offices here.
Think of an Iowa caucus campaign as an iceberg: The most visible part — the candidate — is just a small part of an enormous entity. In Iowa's hinterlands, the best-funded campaigns have assembled massive teams. Workers in dozens of field offices oversee volunteers, make calls, knock on doors, pore over voter lists, recruit precinct captains, train supporters in the complex caucus rules and follow up with voters who attend campaign appearances.
"All the top campaigns have had hundreds, if not thousands, of mock-caucus training sessions with their precinct captains to teach supporters how to do the process," said John Lapp, who ran former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt's 2004 Iowa campaign.
With a tight race and an energized base, Thursday's Democratic caucuses could be the best-attended ever. But that still means that little more than 150,000 people will turn out in a state of about 3 million. With such a small pool of voters, identifying potential supporters and ensuring that they get to their precinct caucuses is the name of the game.
Monica McCarthy, the chairwoman of the Union County Democratic Party — the county of which Creston's the seat — said she'd never seen this level of intensity.
Hillary Clinton's campaign, for example, has organized more than 5,000 volunteer drivers statewide and arranged rides for more than 4,900 caucus-goers. It's bought salt for every field office and distributed more than 600 snow shovels so that every precinct can be salted to make it easier for folks to turn out, according to Teresa Vilmain, the campaign's chief organizer in Iowa.
Field offices are the key to doing such work well because they're an efficient place to organize and because "a real person is what voters respond to," said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political scientist. "Especially someone they see in their community."
Illinois Sen. Obama has 37 field offices and more than 200 paid staffers. New York Sen. Clinton has 36 field offices and about 400 paid staffers. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has 25 field offices and 175 paid staffers.
By comparison, Edwards finished a strong second in Iowa in 2004 with 15 field offices and about 100 staffers.
In Obama's three-room storefront office in Creston, across the street from Pete's Quality Pre-Owned Furniture, Nyssa Aragon and Holly Licht, ebullient 22-year-old recent college graduates — Barnard and Oklahoma State, respectively — manage a six-county area.
Two blocks away at Clinton's six-room headquarters, five staffers run 11 counties. Both offices are decorated in "campaign classic," which is to say they're utter messes: stained carpeting, low ceilings, bad light and boxes strewn everywhere.
"Our job is organizing people who want to get involved but don't know how," Aragon said.
Both Creston offices opened in the fall. Staffers, all of them from out of state, learned the area by attending local meetings and parades. They set to work categorizing as many voters as possible: as ones, twos, threes, fours or fives. Ones are gold: Voters who sign cards committing to caucus for your candidate. Twos lean toward your candidate, threes are undecided, fours are leaning toward other candidates and fives are committed to other candidates. The goals are to amass ones, turn twos and threes into ones and make sure that you aren't surprised come caucus night.
"Quality control is a huge issue," Lapp said. That means going back to voters multiple times to see whether they've changed their minds, and making sure that your ones and twos get out on Thursday night.
Obama workers knocked on 90,000 doors around Iowa the weekend before the caucuses, campaign manager David Plouffe said. On Monday, more than 1,000 Edwards volunteers and workers canvassed neighborhoods in 48 locations around the state, and 51 phone banks made calls to every county in the state.
The process can wear on even the most committed voters.
Kim Hopkins, 43, a lifelong Iowa resident and graphic designer from Des Moines, said the phone calls from campaigns had gotten so bad that she was having her children answer the phone. A Democrat committed to caucusing for Obama, she gets calls daily from all the other Democrats' campaigns. She said she got probably a dozen or more calls a day, every day.
"I'm excited about the caucuses and proud to be an Iowan, so I'm trying to keep a positive attitude about it," Hopkins said. "But it's just constant. You can't answer your phone. It was the topic of a New Year's party last night. Everyone's tired of it!"
Edwards is relying on regular caucus-goers. That's helped his campaign find precinct captains in 95 percent of the state's caucus sites.
Clinton and Obama are counting on Iowans who've never caucused before, so they're focused on ensuring that nothing keeps their supporters from attending, even to the point of arranging baby-sitting.
They've also tried to demystify the process. A few weeks ago, the Clinton campaign began distributing a video called "Caucusing Is Easy" and urging supporters to "bring a buddy" to caucus.
Their targeting of new caucus-goers makes field offices all the more important for Clinton and Obama.
"Those people need a lot of hand-holding, a lot of encouragement that it's worthwhile and they shouldn't be intimidated by the process," Covington said. "They're trying to expand the pie rather than increase their share of the pie."
(Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer and Margaret Talev contributed to this report from Iowa.)