Vern Bass stood in the gum wrappers and dusty grass at the intersection of Routes 9 and 11, smiling, pumping his Kerry-Edwards sign, demanding a reaction.
"Uh-oh, camouflage," said the Kerry campaign staffer, looking at the driver of a red pickup, who slowed to give him the thumbs-down. A young woman in a green Saturn with a lei hanging from the rear-view mirror smiled and leaned on her horn. An old man in a tan Cadillac with a yellow ribbon decal shook his head no. And a towheaded boy leaned out the passenger window of a silver Kia to shout, "That's who we're voting for."
Informal, but there it was: the evenly split response that has put fire in the bellies of Kerry backers from Montana, where Bass is from, to Montgomery County. Polls show Kerry within striking distance of Bush, who in 2000 upset seven decades of Democratic tradition by narrowly winning the state.
The opportunity, and the tight race nationally, has brought Democratic volunteers pouring into this craggy, hard-luck state, working the phones and bumping along the back roads to get out the vote. After pulling campaign staff from here, the Kerry campaign has begun advertising again and is said to be mulling a last-minute appearance by the senator.
"We're going down swinging, kicking, screaming, spitting and cussing," said Dan Rupli, a Kerry volunteer who has come from Frederick to help. "We're just not prepared to give it up."
Martinsburg is a town of 15,000 with white-painted colonial facades in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, where clusters of small towns have become Washington exurbs, and where people are divided right down the middle on whom they're voting for.
This region, fuller every year of people who don't depend on the mined-out interior for jobs, was crucial to Bush in 2000, when he won 52 percent of the state's vote -- and its five electoral votes -- with an appeal to gun owners, social conservatives and coal workers afraid of Al Gore's environmentalist agenda.
The Democratic headquarters is on West King Street, the GOP headquarters is on North Queen Street, and in between is the courthouse, where the line of early voters snaked out the door.
"Let me tell you, it's been constant," said Larry Stewart, the grizzled bailiff guarding the front door. "They get here right at 9, and it's like this until a couple of minutes before 5, about 500 a day."
Out on the sidewalk, Rupli was cursing into his cell phone, trying to get to the bottom of what he believes is Republican chicanery. On the state's ballot, the Republican Party ticket is illustrated with an eagle. Next to the Democratic Party, it's a drawing of a chicken, a rooster, actually, but Rupli wanted to know, "What was the thinking there?"
Monte Harding, 56, of Gerardstown didn't notice the poultry on the Democratic ballot he just cast. "You don't know what's being counted and what's not, so I figured I'd be a little safer voting at the courthouse," he said.
Around the corner, Terry and Libby Cochran stopped by the Republican headquarters to pick up Bush-Cheney lawn signs.
"I purposely asked our son-in-law, who served in Iraq, who we should vote for, and he said Bush," said Libby Cochran, 43, of Bunker Hill.
In a Knight-Ridder Mason-Dixon poll taken Oct. 14-16, 49 percent of West Virginia respondents said they planned to vote for Bush, and 44 percent were for Kerry, with a 4-point margin of error. A full 28 percent of West Virginians said the economy was the most important issue determining their vote. Iraq and "family values" were each cited by 14 percent.
Nearly a quarter of those polled believe -- like Libby Cochran does -- that the most important issue is terrorism. "I don't want to see 9/11 again," she said and began to weep.
Inside its narrow storefront, the GOP headquarters was quiet. Three volunteers made phone calls, as a conversation drifted from a back room. On one wall hung a photo of the president on one of nine trips he's made to West Virginia this year. On another hung a photo of a rodent, perhaps a groundhog, under which somebody had written, "I want bumper stickers."
Duane Turnbull, 60, of Martinsburg had just dropped off a binder he calls "Fit for Command, a book about heroes," including George W. Bush. "I'm kind of tired of people calling him a draft dodger," Turnbull said.
Mary Diamond, Republican National Committee spokeswoman in West Virginia, said the state's campaign staff is "running just as hard today as we did when we first started this campaign." There's been no large influx of volunteers recently, she said.
Not so at the Democratic headquarters, whose banging door admitted a constant trickle of walk-ins. Michael Day of the Potomac Alliance for Kerry-Edwards is an architect of the cross-border movement. "Last weekend, we had 180 new volunteers," mostly from Maryland, he said.
This day brought Alain Philippe, a French-born man from Baltimore, who is upset by the war and Bush's economic policies.
"My wife and I said we just have to do something, we can't just sit here," he said. "And I've noticed that by talking with people, you really can make them switch sides."
So he and the friend with him, Farid Salloum, also of Baltimore, called Kerry headquarters and were sent to West Virginia. "They needed people here, in . . . where are we?"
"Martinsburg," said Salloum, who was born in New York state to Palestinian parents. "The way we look at it," he said, "there are thousands like us, on the fence about helping or not helping."
If Bush wins, Philippe said, "at least we tried to do something."
At the intersection, the honking of horns grew deafening at times as the Kerry crew waved to the people of West Virginia, hunting for votes.
"Wooo hooo," Bass shouted, as a young man in a silver sedan made an obscene gesture. "Just bagged my first bird."