Clarence Madrilejos remembers when he was first bitten by the political bug. He was a high school freshman recovering from knee surgery at his home in San Jose.
"I watched the '92 elections from my couch," he said. The son of Filipino immigrants, he later became active in Democratic Party politics, worked on the '96 Clinton-Gore campaign and headed a chapter of College Democrats of America at Catholic University.
The 22-year-old political science graduate is among a corps of recruits from a Washington-based Democratic organization working in 13 hotly contested Virginia legislative races that Democrats say are crucial if they are to regain control of the General Assembly.
All seats in both houses are up for grabs Nov. 2, and the winners will redraw the state and U.S. congressional districts in Virginia, based on the 2000 Census.
Madrilejos and 12 other young party operatives have been dispatched to serve as campaign organizers by Democrats 2000, a group dedicated to electing "progressive populist Democrats" at the local, state and federal levels.
He is one of five workers assigned to tight Northern Virginia races--the 41st, 43rd, 44th and 67th district House contests and the state Senate campaign of Leslie L. Byrne. They recruit volunteers, contact voters and wage old-fashioned grass-roots efforts against Republican opponents who often are much better funded.
"We need to bring politics back to the people," said Beth Kanter, a spokeswoman for Democrats 2000.
The group's effort in Virginia represents a dry run for next year, when it plans to send in organizers and spend $2 million in state and U.S. congressional campaigns in nine states, including California, Texas, Illinois and New York.
The stakes are especially high in Virginia, where Republicans hold a two-seat majority in the state Senate and Democrats have a slim edge in the House of Delegates.
"People are taking particular notice of Virginia because of the importance of redistricting and how close the margin is," Kanter said.
Republicans insist that they, too, are waging grass-roots efforts, and they criticize the Democrats for bringing in outsiders.
"Ultimately what matters is the quality of the candidates and their nexus with the constituents they seek to represent," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "At the end of the day, [Democrats 2000] is going to have a negligible effect."
In Virginia, "Republicans don't have to import people from other states," he added. "We've found a cadre of volunteers who are eager to have a Republican legislature for the first time in history."
While shunning outside organizers, Republicans have been pouring money into Virginia's campaigns, much of it raised outside the districts. Gov. James S. Gilmore III's political action committee, the New Majority Project, has raised about $2 million for the races so far, and the National Republican Congressional Committee and Republican National Committee each have contributed more than $300,000.
"We don't have a formal program with a catchy title," said Timothy Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia. "But we do use young Republicans and college Republicans to help out with campaigns across the state."
Campaigns "are won on the ground and not in the air," Murtaugh said. "That means shoe leather and wearing out your knuckles knocking on doors, and all our candidates are doing that."
Democratic candidates also have received funding from various national Democratic campaign committees. But it is the influx of campaign staffers that they feel will make the biggest difference.
"It's been a tremendous bonus for us," said David Hamrick, campaign manager for Democrat James E. Mitchell III, who is running for delegate in the 67th District with the help of Madrilejos. "This is one way Democratic campaigns can compete with Republicans who have much more money to spend."
According to Democrats 2000, campaigners have knocked on more than 50,000 Virginia doors.
"The only advantage we have is our grass-roots effort," Madrilejos said as he sat before a laptop computer in a cluttered office of Mitchell's campaign headquarters in a Centreville strip mall.
As field director, he spends 12- to 13-hour days organizing volunteers--usually college or high school students--for door knocking, compiling lists of voters to visit, putting together packets of campaign literature to distribute, phoning prospective voters and reviewing the canvassing results when the volunteers return.
Like the other field directors, none of whom is over 30, Madrilejos also sometimes accompanies the volunteers on their rounds and talks to voters at their homes.
Fellow field organizer Kirsten Hancock, 24, arrived in Springfield a month ago from Houston. She quit her job there at a law firm and now is assigned to the House race of Eileen Filler-Corn, who faces incumbent Republican James Dillard in the 41st District.
"I left my job on a Friday, was here on Tuesday and began work on Wednesday," Hancock said. "It's a 24-7 job, but it's probably the most rewarding job I've ever done."
Kristen Amundson, whose campaign for the 44th House District seat is getting help from Democrats 2000 worker Thatcher Williams, 30, said the volunteer help is priceless.
"Because Thatcher and the other Democrats 2000 people are young, they seem to be able to exist on a lot less sleep than the rest of us," she said. "They just bring a wonderful energy into a campaign."
CAPTION: Clarence Madrilejos, left, and Rebecca Hoelter sign up a Chantilly High School campaign volunteer after a political debate in the school auditorium. Madrilejos and Hoelter are part of Democrats 2000, a grass-roots group.