Stuart Feldstein, a Fairfax County attorney, heard the whir of a helicopter above his house yesterday morning and turned to his wife in mock horror.
"Oh God," Feldstein moaned. "They're coming to get us to vote."
In the past few weeks, the Feldsteins received half a dozen calls from the campaign organization of state attorney general Gerald L. Baliles, who competed yesterday against Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis for the Democratic nomination for governor in mass meetings across Virginia.
The first call was to tell the Feldsteins generally about Baliles. The second was to find out whether they planned to vote in the mass meeting. The third was to solidify the Feldsteins' support for Baliles. The rest, including two calls yesterday morning, were to remind them to vote.
Virginia's system for nominating candidates for statewide offices places a high premium on organization and, especially in the hotly contested Northern Virginia region, the two campaign organizations did everything short of bludgeoning people to get them to the meetings.
"We were bombarded," said Felix Brandon, a Fairfax County voter, who said he got campaign literature almost every day. "After a while you just end up throwing it all away."
Yesterday's caucuses and those to be held Monday will determine which candidate goes to the party's convention on June 7 with the most delegates. If one candidate takes a clear lead in delegate counts, as expected, the nominating convention will become mostly a formality. To win, a candidate needs 1,802 delegates.
The intensity of the contest drew a record number of voters in Northern Virginia yesterday, despite the clouds and the drizzle.
Alexandria Democratic Chair Joann Miller had to copy 250 extra ballots to accommodate the unexpectedly large crowd. More than 1,100 voters cast ballots into knee-high wooden boxes by the time voting ended at 4 p.m -- a turnout Miller said equals that of presidential election years.
Voters also outnumbered the prepared ballots -- and the seats -- at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington. They knelt with their pencils on the floor of the school's cafeteria and spilled over into the adjacent cafeteria kitchen and the hallways to fill out their ballots. Sharon Davis, who chairs the Arlington Democratic Committee, estimated the total number at 1,800, a record.
At J.E.B. Stuart High School, the Mason District turnout was nearing the record of 550 voters by midafternoon with four hours of voting to go.
The meetings drew both the sophisticated party loyal and a number of people new to Virginia's oddball and confusing system of nominating candidates.
In the most populous districts, voters were confronted with ballots listing as many as 130 delegates and told to pick as many as 65. Davis and Baliles supporters crowded the lobbies of schoolhouses passing out sample ballots and encouraging the reluctant.
"I've never done this before. Is this hard?" asked Marty Kirschbaum, an English teacher in Arlington, staring with apprehension at a sample ballot in the lobby of Stuart high school.
"Oh, this is too hard. I'm going back," she said a moment later, provoking a shower of advice from hovering supporters of Davis and Baliles.
Despite her wariness, Kirschbaum had figured out the system enough to realize one of the unusual aspects of Virginia's nominating method, which only three other states follow.
She could fill out her entire ballot, choosing as many as 65 delegates, and still not make up her mind whether Davis or Baliles was the better candidate. Kirschbaum said the friends who give her political advice were equally divided on the merits of the candidates, so she planned to select half Baliles delegates and half Davis.
"That's what I did too," a voter standing next to Kirschbaum murmured approvingly. "And then I picked the names I liked."
Diane Everett relied entirely on the counsel and directions of a friend, who encouraged her to attend the Stafford County meeting. "I never even knew you all did this," she said. "They could have been having these for years and I wouldn't know."
Roselle Gibbs tried with limited success to explain some of the niceties of the process to a newcomer, Mabel Crismond, in Stafford County. "This is crazy," said Crismond.
"It's rather archaic," agreed Miller, of the Alexandria branch of the party. "But then this is Virginia."
Staff writers Nancy Scannell, Mary Jordan and Lee Hockstader contributed to this report.