The day after Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the Florida primary, Scott Raab's phone was buzzing.
Raab, leader of McCain's campaign in Kern County, was peppered with requests for yard signs, bumper stickers, campaign buttons -- the essential, eye-grabbing swag of neighborhood campaigning. But he didn't have any, despite his monthlong plea to the national campaign for supplies.
"All of a sudden, everyone is interested in McCain," said Raab, 24, a political consultant who was serving on a Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf just 18 months ago. "A lot of people around here had already written the guy off."
By Friday morning, two days later, Raab had his yard signs and had a crew knocking on doors in one of Bakersfield's most exclusive, and most Republican, neighborhoods, handing out glossy McCain campaign fliers.
The slow start has been typical of the grass-roots campaigns for the presidential candidates in the southernmost corner of the San Joaquin Valley, a land known for its oil fields, fertile soil and bedrock conservative politics.
Until now, voters here were a bit of an afterthought for the presidential candidates, who instead focused their time and money in other primary states and in California's voter-rich metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco. No candidates have stopped by, and the local campaigns are being run by dedicated teachers, oil company executives and others who volunteer their time.
Last week, however, most of the campaigns came to life, energized as the field of candidates narrowed and California's primary on Tuesday crept closer. "Ugly Betty" star America Ferrera ventured over the Grapevine with a crew of young celebrities to lead a Hillary Rodham Clinton rally at Cal State Bakersfield on Friday, and Republican contender Mitt Romney had ads running on Bakersfield's three main TV stations by the end of the week.
Before last week, the sheer number of viable candidates had divided voters in the region, especially among Republicans, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), an up-and-coming freshman in Congress. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was a heavy favorite among many local GOP leaders, and when he dropped out many were uncertain where to turn, McCarthy said.
"I've never had so many people call me and say, 'I don't know who to vote for,' said McCarthy, who has pledged to stay neutral until after the state primary.
Bakersfield is the largest city in McCarthy's 22nd Congressional District, which stretches from the Paso Robles area east to the Mojave Desert and includes most of Lancaster. Candidates in both parties who win decisively in Bakersfield on Tuesday have a good shot at taking the district, and both Republicans and Democrats award delegates, at least in part, based on the winner in each congressional district. (A portion of Bakersfield is in the 20th Congressional District of Democrat Jim Costa.)
McCarthy has the good fortune of representing the most Republican congressional district in California: Republicans account for 50.4% of registered voters, compared with 30.4% for Democrats, voter registration figures show.
In 2004, President Bush received a whopping 67.9% of the vote, compared with 54.4% statewide. McCarthy was elected two years later, filling the seat of retiring GOP stalwart Bill Thomas, and was one of the few Republican newcomers to be elected in a year the Democrats swept Republicans out of power in Congress.
"This is a Republican stronghold. . . . The roots here are rural roots," said McCarthy, adding that both the National Rifle Assn. and antiabortion advocates receive popular support. "But I'd say the No. 1 issue out there now is immigration, followed by the economy."
Those were two of the main issues that volunteers for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, were stressing as they dialed voters from four phone banks Friday night.
"Romney has the strongest stance on illegal immigration and securing the borders," said Romney volunteer Bryan Williams, 24, who works as a field representative for the local assemblywoman. "And that's where McCain is weakest."
Williams said he was backing Romney because of the candidate's success as a businessman, his emphasis on economic issues and his ability to win a governor's race "in one of the bluest states out there."
"He's the one who can bring all sides together and get things done," said Williams, ensconced with other volunteers in a maze of cubicles at a local real estate office. For many Republicans here, the dividing line between Romney and McCain is immigration.
Jack Duncan, head of the Kern County Republican Party, said loyal conservatives were still steamed at McCain for sponsoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which failed to pass after being derided as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Duncan has vowed to stay neutral on the GOP primary, but he has difficulty masking his disdain. Even with McCain's having acknowledged that he had learned his lesson and that he now supports securing the borders first, Duncan is not convinced.
"He hasn't had a change of heart. He's had a change of rhetoric," said Duncan, a former fire marshal. "I just see too many flaws with McCain, and I'm a Vietnam vet."
Still, McCain's supporters expect that he will have a strong showing in the district Tuesday, especially after Giuliani's endorsement.
On a frigid, gray Friday morning, McCain volunteers canvassed the small enclave called Iron Oaks in north Bakersfield and found that at least a handful of residents had already voted for McCain by mail-in ballot.
One volunteer, Lee Lentz, 73, canvassed Bakersfield neighborhoods for McCain when he first ran for president in 2000. He will have better luck this time around, she said, because the country is at war and is hungry for a strong leader.
"I just trust the man," she said. "We need someone in there that knows the mechanics of war and fighting terrorists."
As Lentz walked house to house, symptoms of the troubled economy were also evident. One of the pricey homes had a bank's lockbox on the front door, a telltale sign of foreclosure.
Bakersfield has been one of the California cities most affected by the mortgage crisis, and surrounding neighborhoods are filled with "For Sale" signs.
"We've been hit hard," Lentz said. "We've had a lot of bad loans go down."
On the Democratic side, local campaign volunteers see the same high stakes.
Stockdale High School science teacher Steve Kiouses has been campaigning for Barack Obama for months, and on Thursday night helped organize a Democratic debate-watching party at Cataldo's Pizzeria, followed by a phone bank party where volunteers whipped out their cellphones and called independent voters.
"We may be poor in votes, but we're rich in delegates," Kiouses told the two dozen supporters munching on free pizza, reminding them that even though there weren't many Democrats around, Obama would still win delegates if he beat Clinton in the congressional district.
"People are just excited about Obama," said the spry and energetic Kiouses, who retired from his lucrative job as an oil executive to teach earth sciences.
"Every day it gets bigger and bigger. Every day I end up with 10 people calling me wanting to help, and leaving me a message while I'm in class."
One of those volunteers was Grace Moreno, 45, a counselor for the disabled in Bakersfield, who said she was inspired by Obama's message and ready for a change in Washington.
"It's hard for me to admit that I don't like Hillary," she said. "I'm just tired of all the political division, and she's a divisive figure."
On Saturday morning, Obama supporters gathered at Jastro Park in Bakersfield for a morning rally before pouring out into local neighborhoods to knock on doors.
The Clinton campaign has been aggressive but more detached. The New York senator has been airing local ads for weeks, and in the fall the campaign called every woman in Kern County who was a registered Democrat and a mail-in voter, said campaign spokesman Mike Trujillo.
At the Clinton rally Friday at Cal State Bakersfield, Latino voter Manny Meza said he was leaning toward Clinton because of her health insurance plan. Meza, a medical assistant at the campus clinic, also said he was sick of hearing candidates making special appeals to Latinos, African Americans or other minority groups.
"Stick to the issues," said Meza, 30, "and keep the race card out of it."