About 300 Washington area college students, possessing sleeping bags and a desire to change the world, boarded five buses in the nation's capital last night and headed for the heart of the country's hottest political battleground: Florida.
They planned to drive through the night, arrive outside Orlando about 11 a.m. today and then (who needs sleep?) fan out across four crucial counties they hope to tilt in Sen. John F. Kerry's favor.
"I hope you brought comfortable clothes," Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, told the throng just before the buses left the campus of George Washington University.
The trip to Florida, sponsored by the environmental nonprofit, is another example of how the closely contested presidential election has galvanized the country. With the District and Maryland squarely in the Democrats' camp, and Virginia behind President Bush, residents from across the region are descending on swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where they hope to have a greater impact.
The students, many of whom have just reached voting age, plan to spend today and tomorrow campaigning for Kerry door-to-door in precincts identified by the League as up for grabs. On Sunday, they'll get back on the buses for the 14-hour return trip.
"This is not preaching to the choir," said Chuck Porcari, a League spokesman. "This is adding new members to the choir."
Jesse Guyer, 19, a George Washington freshman from Philadelphia, has already persuaded one swing state voter to go for Kerry -- his mother. He said the Florida trip would be worth it if he gets just one more.
"Four more years of Bush scares me," he said.
His classmate Dan Greenblatt, a tall, unassuming 18-year-old from Princeton, N.J., said he wanted to talk to Floridians about health care. "And oh, yeah," Guyer interrupted. "We're not getting Social Security. Did you get the memo?"
For Grace Evans, an 18-year-old environmental science major at the University of Maryland, the issue that got her on the bus was the environment, which she thinks "Bush is destroying."
Republicans on George Washington's campus have been mobilizing as well. The university's GOP club has spent the last several weeks getting students to vote in their home states by absentee ballots, said Chrissy Trotta, the group's president.
Several students have been spending every weekend for the last month in Pennsylvania, courting voters in the Philadelphia suburbs. And the Republican National Committee is paying for a group of 17 students to fly to Michigan and campaign through Election Day, she said.
"It really is amazing when you have changed someone's mind, and you know that vote can make a difference," said Trotta, a 21-year-old political science major from Long Island, N.Y.
So with all the campaigning going on, who's going to class?
Trotta said the "professors here are pretty understanding because there are so many students that are politically involved here."
Mary Catherine Curran, a journalism major from the University of Maryland, was going to miss a couple of classes while on the trip. But there's the education you get in class, and then there's what you learn in the real world. So when she thought about what a historic election this would be with the nation divided and at war, she knew she was going.
She did promise her communications professor that she would write a paper about the experience.
Plus, at 18, this is the first time the New Carrollton native, who decided she was a Democrat in the first grade, has been able to cast a ballot for anything other than class president.
"I've been waiting for this my whole life," she said. "I've never had the opportunity to vote."