Susan Gray and Tom Harper, momentarily lost amid a labyrinth of desert-hued apartment buildings, attract curious stares from tenants as they scurry along snaking sidewalks until they finally find the address on their list: a second-floor unit at the top of a flight of stairs.
Harper looks down at him and, after a pause, explains that they're working for the Obama campaign and that the person at the address is listed as a supporter. "Good," the man says, touching his right hand to the small of his back, "because I've got my .44 back here."
Gun-toting neighbors weren't on Gray's list of expectations when the political novice left her Mission Viejo home Friday to spend the weekend pounding the Las Vegas pavement for Obama. She and four other Orange County volunteers came to pair up with locals like Harper, and to get crash course in street-level politics.
This morning's lesson: Expect the unexpected.
Over the last couple of months, 164 Obama volunteers from neighboring states have made similar trips to Las Vegas, Reno and Elko as part of the Obama campaign's Drive for Change program. His is the only Democratic presidential campaign using this tactic, according to local observers.
The idea is to augment Nevadans' volunteer work ahead of the state's Jan. 19 caucuses while learning such campaign basics as how to run phone banks, knock on doors and collect data. Obama's campaign is running similar efforts in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- which also are holding early caucuses or primaries.
But Nevada's program has an added dimension: "We are surrounded by February 5th states," said Obama's campaign director in Nevada, David Cohen, referring to primaries scheduled in California, Arizona, Idaho and Utah. That makes Nevada prime training ground for volunteers from the other states.
"This is important from a larger, strategic perspective," Cohen said.
So far, California groups have traveled from the Bay Area to Reno, and from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego to Las Vegas. Arizona volunteers -- 21 last weekend -- also target the Las Vegas area; volunteers from Utah and Idaho focus on Elko and other rural areas in the vast northeast part of the state.
The trips are coordinated by the official Obama campaign in Nevada, but often draw from unofficial grass-roots resources, such as a group calling itself Orange County for Obama. Most of the groups are making multiple trips. Last weekend was the second Drive for Change for the Orange County group, and a third is possible.
Most of the imported volunteers stay in Nevadans' homes. The campaign hopes they'll build relationships so Nevadans will go to California, Arizona, Utah and Idaho for get-out-the-vote primary drives there, Cohen said.
Though caucuses and primaries are conducted differently -- precinct-level meetings scheduled for a set time versus absentee ballots and all-day polling -- the organizing details are similar: Find supporters and make sure they get to where they need to be when the time comes.
A similar 2004 effort by Howard Dean in Iowa backfired. The locals resented the intrusion of thousands of out-of-staters who wore orange hats and were ignorant of local pronunciations. The Obamans hope to head off such troubles in Nevada by pairing the traveling volunteers with locals -- and by teaching in an orientation session that it's Ne-VAD-uh, not Ne-VAH-duh.
"These volunteers aren't parachuting into communities telling Nevadans who to caucus for," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "They are providing logistical and organizational support to increase the amount of outreach our 2,000 Nevada volunteers can perform to their neighbors. And they're learning the skills they need to organize their communities in California to turn enthusiasm for Barack Obama into votes on February 5th."
Enthusiasm is high. The volunteers speak with the fervor of the converted, and each organizational meeting begins with get-acquainted segments in which volunteers explain why they're supporting Obama. It may sound like a group therapy session, but it's part of a grass-roots organizing strategy that relies on "personal narratives" to help forge bonds.
After 90 minutes of orientation and narratives Saturday, the volunteers hit the streets in two-person teams. Those in each car have a list of 60 to 80 names and detailed directions from address to address over routes of 40 to 50 miles. But on this unseasonably cool and beautiful day, few people are home, and success comes in small measures.
There's no answer at the first house on Gray and Harper's list, but at the second one they catch their target, Ercilia Valdez, before she heads out on a bike ride with her husband, Jerry. Both sign cards.
Yet over the next 17 houses, Gray and Harper only get one more signature.
Bill Spaulding of Santa Ana and Luke Hayes, a paid Obama Nevada field organizer, have more luck in the afternoon, getting seven cards signed at 15 addresses. Spaulding brought himself out of self-imposed political exile to join the Obama campaign: He quit activism 20 years ago, after work in New York City and Los Angeles, including the quest to win city status for West Hollywood.
"It was time to hand off the baton to someone younger," Spaulding says as he drives his Toyota Prius to the first address on the afternoon list. "I served my shift."
Obama's Democratic National Convention speech in 2004 reawakened Spaulding -- something he said no other candidate had been able to do.
"He's the first candidate for any office who's excited me in 20 years," Spaulding says. "When you trust the way a person thinks, you can trust their goals and objectives."
The organizing goal for the day is 100 cards signed by supporters promising to show up for the caucus -- an ambitious goal, more than triple the previous weekend best of 29 cards.
By day's end, only 42 cards are signed in; 15 more were gathered Sunday, for a weekend total of 57.
"It's kind of a long, tedious task," Harper says as he turns away from his 17th stop -- another unanswered door. "But it's got to be done."