Getting in the Party Spirit

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Olimpia Lopez, a nanny who lives in Northwest Washington's Petworth neighborhood, canceled a dental appointment yesterday, along with an $18-an-hour baby-sitting job.

A historic election was at hand, and Lopez, 59, felt compelled to make her first foray into presidential politics. At 10 a.m., she joined a group on a Mount Pleasant corner and hoisted a Hillary Clinton sign for all the passing world to see.

A similar spirit drove Doug Hartley, 73, a retired State Department diplomat, to forsake the couch, TV and his usual glass of wine Friday night. Instead, he walked two miles from his Glover Park home to Dupont Circle, where he stood with a foot-stomping, sign-waving crowd of Barack Obama supporters.

"It's like taking Viagra, except that it doesn't cost you anything," Hartley said, pausing to appreciate the gusto of a woman shouting "Are you an Obama mama?" at every female passerby.

"This is fun. It's exciting," he said. "People are all ginned up."

As the presidential primary engulfs the Washington region, public attention is focused on the two Democratic candidates, both of whom have the chance to make history, either by becoming the first woman to win the White House or the first African American.

But behind the two candidates, another drama is unfolding, one that stars legions of volunteers: young men and women, retirees, grandmothers, lawyers and stockbrokers, many of them captivated and moved by the campaign's unprecedented choice of candidates.

For months they have watched the duel play out in such states as Iowa, New Hampshire and California. But now it has come to neighborhoods and towns across the District, Maryland and Virginia, and thousands of volunteers are stealing time from work, children, spouses and themselves to dive headlong into the frenzy of a national campaign.

"It's my civic duty," said Martina Matthews, 72, a retired public school principal who lives in Capitol Hill, a walking advertisement for Obama, with three campaign buttons pinned to her black beret.

Standing outside the senator's storefront headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue after attending the office's opening Friday morning, Matthews pronounced herself ready to make phone calls, wave signs, monitor a polling station, whatever was needed.

In January, she said, she drove to South Carolina and slept in a "fleabag motel" that shook every time a train passed, all so she could spread the word about her man, the senator.

"I'm looking at him as a man I love," Matthews said, her grin lingering even as she recalled the greasy pizza she had to endure during those 18-hour days. "I mean, he moves me to want to do better."

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