In national political campaigns, top status usually goes to the media strategists, the architects of the "air war" on television. These are men and women who go on talk shows, get quoted in magazines and papers and are prized guests at the dinner tables of Washington lobbyists and power brokers.

But it is the field generals of the "ground war" who hold sway here in Iowa, where a battle for political survival is conducted on 2,143 different fronts: each and every precinct on a wintry night.

Their names are obscure, but their skills are crucial: Trained in the trenches of urban wards and precincts, they are expert in lining up support one voter at a time, putting the names on paper and into the computer, and ranking all potential voters somewhere between a "one" (a sure vote) and a "five" (committed to the opposition).

"This work ain't sexy," said Michael J. Whouley, who started in this line of work at the age of 19, running Dorchester's Ward 15 for a losing Boston mayoral candidate in 1979, and is now leading the effort here for Vice President Gore.

Variations on Whouley's comment are echoed repeatedly by allies and adversaries in a kind of dirge for the dying art of retail politics in an era of television, e-mail, direct mail and computerized phone banks.

But one thing hasn't changed: Voting in an Iowa caucus is not easy. In the New Hampshire primary, voters can pick their time to cast a ballot. Here, they have to show up at their precincts at 6:30 on a Monday night with a below-zero wind-chill factor a virtual certainty, spend as much as two hours or more in a caucus listening to speeches and bargain to influence delegate apportionment under formulas that only aficionados of the arcane rules of proportional representation can understand.

The result is that only a fraction, one in five or less, of the 562,581 registered Democrats and 582,079 registered Republicans will determine who wins the first key test in the battle for the major party nominations.

Bradley and Gore are both spending heavily on television--$1.8 million by Bradley and $1.2 million by Gore--but the crucial factor in the margin of difference between the two men will be what is variously known as "the ground war," GOTV (get-out-the-vote), "field" and grunt work.

It is long and tedious. Steve Hildebrand, Gore's state director, was hired on April 15, 1999. Dan Lucas, Hildebrand's counterpart in the Bradley campaign, started in early July. And it offers no job security.

Hildebrand, 37, has held 11 different jobs over the past 14 years, including executive director of the South Dakota and Minnesota Democratic parties, Midwest field director for the Democratic National Committee and political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I miss my house, my dog and my family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota," Hildebrand said.

Lucas, 50, has bounced around from congressional campaigns, to Adlai Stevenson III's 1982 bid for the Illinois governorship, to political director for the Service Employees International Union, to the National Association of Realtors, to the DNC. Neither Lucas nor Hildebrand has a pension that would pay the rent on a one-room flat. But all that is made up by the joy of the battle.

"I knew when we were here to stay. It was when we crossed the threshold getting captains in 600 'tier one' precincts on October 8. And when we got the first 600 done, they could never get us out," Lucas said. Tier one precincts are those with the highest Democratic turnout.

Gore's big mistake in Iowa, according to Lucas, was in disregarding the Bradley campaign during the early months and portraying his own bid as unstoppable. "If Michael Whouley and his guys had tried to get real heavy on us in July, it would have been real tough."

Whouley, among a segment of Democratic officials and operatives, has taken on a mystique--a working-class hero to the troops in a party that has become increasingly upscale and yuppified. When Whouley arrived in Iowa a few weeks ago, Lucas said, "They [the Gore campaign] got much tougher. They got focused. It got real tough."

Whouley, who describes himself as an "urban populist" and "cultural Catholic," lived in Boston triple-deckers for the first 34 years of his life until he got married six years ago. A graduate of Boston College High School and Boston College, he is political to the core.

After serving as national field director for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, Whouley worked briefly in the White House, in charge of what was euphemistically called "priority placement," or, more directly, patronage. "People who helped us were the priorities. You make sure you take care of the people who took care of you. It's totally ethical."

Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO, said Whouley is "very smart, very serious, very aggressive, one of the best field organizers I've ever met. . . . He basically understands how to move votes, identify who your supporters are, and turn them out. It's a hard, mechanical game."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whose victories have been guided in part by Whouley, is more declarative: "I love Michael Whouley."

Whouley is working in the trenches here in Iowa, but unlike many of his comrades in ground war specialties, he no longer is forced to range from running congressional campaigns to serving as executive directors of state parties. Instead, he is one of three partners of the Dewey Square Group, which describes itself "as the preeminent firm in national and regional grass-roots strategy and campaign management. The firm's clients include AT&T Corp., Northwest Airlines and a host of other corporations, nonprofit groups and local governments.

Now, as the battle for Iowa caucus-goers comes to a close, Whouley and Lucas are engaged in what amounts to their own separate spin war: playing down their own strength and inflating the opposition's in a bid to control expectations.

"We never were going to win. On July 5, I said to him [Bradley] this is a tough state, it's going to be real brutal here, but we can organize and I can get us out alive," said Lucas, who just last month told the Des Moines Register that Bradley could win.

"I hope for between a 4- and 6-point victory," Whouley countered, just as new polls showed Gore's lead here rising to the 23- to 25-point range.