Chuck Caputo believes he understands the art of knocking on doors and ingratiating himself with the potential voters who answer. Be chatty but intuitive enough to know when to bail so people can get on with their dinner. Check out the car bumper stickers for conversation starters and clues about their backgrounds.
And if you're from New York, tell 'em you're from New York.
"Hi, I'm Chuck Caputo. I'm running for House of Delegates," Caputo, 67, said with his thick New York accent, greeting a Loudoun County mother one night during a door-knocking marathon.
At her South Riding home, Christine Zimmerman, 35, immediately detected Caputo's mother tongue. "You wouldn't happen to be from the New York area? I was born in Astoria, Queens. My family lives on Long Island now."
"Ah, yes. My mom lived for years in Commack," the Democrat said, grinning.
"Well, now you have my vote," she said, laughing. "Which church do you go to?"
"St. John Neumann," he said, not missing a beat.
Among all the expensive and novel marketing methods that politicians cook up to win in November, going door-to-door is still a thriving and surprisingly beneficial staple of politicking. The visits can offer myriad opportunities: a chance to charm the other side, lock in the candidate's base or simply remind people that there is, in fact, an election for statewide offices Nov. 8.
But alongside the potential for rewards, door-knocking in this game can be fruitless and discouraging. Sometimes, as Caputo experienced the other night, a candidate can knock on several doors, nobody will be home and valuable time will have been wasted. In other cases, people shut doors almost instantaneously or young children appear in a window and wave the candidate off. Rarely, Caputo said, has he faced aggressive debaters.
The worst it can get is an awkward exchange, such as when he asks someone for a vote and the person replies with a blank face: "I appreciate that, I appreciate that."
Since June, Caputo, who is running against Republican Chris S. Craddock, has knocked on about 6,000 doors in Virginia's 67th District, which includes parts of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, near Dulles International Airport.
Tuesday night, when he toured the Little River precinct in South Riding, he had a little more than two hours to knock on as many doors as possible before it would get dark. After that, he felt, it would be inappropriate for him to intrude on strangers' lives.
For Caputo, the night began at his headquarters, a former karate dojo sandwiched between a cell phone store and a Chinese restaurant in a Chantilly strip mall.
There, in a carpetless room, he met with his aides and his daughter, Kathy Worek, 37, a substitute teacher and homemaker who would accompany him on his walk. She picked up slips of paper listing the names of various residents and how often they had voted. Caputo does not knock on just anyone's door -- just those who voted in previous elections.
Then, the father and daughter duo headed out on Route 50 in separate cars toward the neighborhood known affectionately as the Bubble.
Spry and thin, Caputo seemed upbeat for the big walk, dressed in his blue campaign polo shirt and khakis. "When you're fishing, until you lift a fish out of the water, you don't know what kind of fish you have," he said, driving in his mid-size SUV. "Well, until you open the door, you don't know what kind of voter you have."
He parked on Ocala Circle and, surrounded by rows of look-alike homes, he immediately began employing one of his tricks of the trade: applying bug spray. "One time, I got stung on both hands from bees when I ran for Fairfax Board of Supervisors 14 years ago," he said, laughing.
The first several homes were a bust: No one was home. Each time, he folded up his brochure and wedged it between the door handle and frame.
But first he signed it and included a predictable message -- and insisted that a reporter not reveal the contents because he considers it part of his strategy against his opponent. Craddock, he said, writes shorter messages. "Maybe I'm a little hyper about it," Caputo said.
A few doors down the road, he encountered Chuck Chappell, 45, a consultant. Chappell greeted him with a fixed smile, and the two bonded over their New York upbringings. But Chappell told him that he had voted for Craddock's opponent in the Republican primary, incumbent Gary A. Reese.
"Well, Gary Reese has thrown his support behind me," Caputo said.
"That's good to know," Chappell said, his face brightening.
After he walked away, Caputo felt energized, turning to his daughter and saying, "Now, I'm thinking I've got a hook."
Worek then wrote "+2" on the slip of paper containing Chappell's name and voting history to note that he and his wife would likely vote for her father.
Worek often prepped Caputo for voters whose backgrounds she knows so her dad could instantly make a connection or, in one case, avoid a touchy subject.
"This is the Starrs. I think they home-school," she told her father as they approached the front door of one home.
"You're not going to hear me say anything about public education," he said.
By the time it got dark, Caputo had stopped at more than 40 houses. At one of the last ones, he waited for an answer and tried opening a screen door to drop off a brochure. But as he looked down, he saw a sticker at the bottom of the door that immediately sent him scurrying away.
"When I see [that], I don't go near it. I respect it," he said. Not worth the confrontation.
The sticker read, "No Soliciting."