When a firetruck rolls out of Station 22 in Springfield, there are usually three people aboard. Firefighter and paramedic Joel Kobersteen thinks it would be safer and smarter if there were four or five, and he thinks that could happen if John F. Kerry becomes president.
But Kobersteen, 32, isn't just going to vote for the Democratic nominee, he's going to try to persuade others to do the same.
Labor Day is when the languid pace of the summer political season quickens on the grass-roots level. And yesterday across Virginia, under overcast skies and with a chill in the air, Kerry supporters hosted about 25 "front porch discussions" to stimulate interest in a state they believe they can deliver to the Democratic presidential candidate.
At a picnic yesterday in Fairfax County, it didn't much matter that the front porch was actually a back deck. Politics was in the air. Kobersteen ate hamburgers, potato chips and cookies and said he thinks Kerry is the right candidate for blue-collar people. He said he's going to pass that message on to firefighters, friends and anyone else who will listen.
"This is just the beginning," Kobersteen said. "I'm an educator and trying to get out the truth. My big thing is, vote educated."
The mood was more pep rally than discussion. That's what organizers had in mind.
"We're not looking for debate," said John Niemiec, host of the cookout and first vice president of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters & Paramedics of Local 2068, an arm of the International Association of Fire Fighters union. "We're looking to get firefighters together and get revved up."
Similar events, held yesterday from Richmond to Roanoke to Newport News, reflect the "every vote counts" mentality of the Kerry camp as it fights for victory in Virginia, a state no Democratic presidential nominee has won since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
In 2000, President Bush bested Al Gore 52 percent to 44 percent in Virginia. But Kerry strategists, who cite job losses in rural counties and an increase in voter registration in immigrant communities of Northern Virginia, say the state's 13 electoral votes are within reach this year.
But during a GOP rally last month at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Bush received a standing ovation from an invitation-only crowd, and Republican leaders predicted that he'd easily capture the state in November. "Virginia is Bush country," Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said at the event.
What is clear is that both sides are going all out to court votes.
As Niemiec barbecued yesterday, the dozen or so guests chatted about the start of school, pets and mutual friends. The firefighters and their spouses talked shop and remarked wistfully over the seeming end of the warm weather. David B. Billy, a deputy political director for the Kerry campaign, mingled.
But when R. Michael Mohler, president of Local 2068, took center stage at one end of the deck, all eyes were on him. Mohler said he believes Kerry would help get more firefighters on the streets, improve the health care system and ensure that there are more jobs.
"Please think about these things and talk about these things," Mohler said, urging the guests to campaign for Kerry. "We have members out there who are on the fence and will support our cause if they know the facts. . . . Everybody here has influence."
Mohler also talked about getting more of the IAFF campaign signs -- bright yellow ones that read "IAFF. Firefighters for Kerry" -- distributed across rural Virginia, where voters tend to lean Republican.
"When people see 'Firefighters for Kerry,' I think that will be helpful," Mohler said.
Sarah Goldman, 24, an emergency medical technician and firefighter at Station 8 in Annandale, said she backs Kerry for all the reasons Mohler mentioned. But she said she also supports Kerry's stance on the environment, women's issues and gay marriage.
Plus, Goldman said, she simply feels that Bush is out of touch with many residents. "I simply cannot relate to George Bush or his wife or his daughters," she said.
Kobersteen said that he'll keep pushing for Kerry but that he's not sure how things will turn out in November.
"Different people have different values," Kobersteen said. "John Kerry doesn't reflect everyone's values. He reflects mine."