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Camp Obama focuses on election win

Brandon Neal, national coordinator with Students For Obama talks with participants of the "Camp Obama" volunteer school in Chicago, Friday, June 1, 2007. The nearly weeklong training program that grooms campaign volunteers and interns will graduate 38 people on Friday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO --A Yale graduate who quit a finance job in New York to volunteer for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, Chris Wyant knows exactly how long he can afford to work for free. "As long as he lasts or until he wins November of '08," Wyant said, laughing. "Or until I'm so bankrupt that, you know, I need to get a real job. Whichever comes first -- hopefully, hopefully November '08."

On Friday, the 25-year-old Wyant was among 38 people set to graduate from the campaign's new nationwide training program for volunteers and interns: "Camp Obama."

But don't look for bonfires or singalongs at this nearly weeklong summer camp. Here, campers are holed up on a sparsely decorated floor of a downtown office building, gathered around folding tables where they learn more about Obama and how to galvanize support for him.

The campaign received more than 1,200 applications for about 350 spots, said campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The camp, which is in its second week, will run four days a week for seven weeks with about 50 people each week, Psaki said. Later, there will probably be two-day sessions, she said.

Volunteers are a staple of any campaign, but most people don't know how to organize big events or coordinate logistics, so it's up to campaigns to teach them, said Phil Singer, a spokesman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a chief rival of Obama for the Democratic nomination.

"It's not like you just wake up one morning and say, 'Hey, let's put together a big campaign rally,'" Singer said.

Many of those at the Obama campaign's most recent camp in Chicago were college students or recent graduates, including 62-year-old Ina Cruse, who graduated from a Chicago community college last year.

"It is not only the young people that are interested in change," said Cruse, who is retired from a job with the city of Chicago.

The Obama campaign taught them everything from canvassing and campaigning to how the Iowa caucuses work and how to organize supporters.

That made for some long days, said Julia Duncan, a 19-year-old from Menlo Park, Calif., who will be a junior at the University of Virginia next semester.

"Nine o'clock at night you're like, 'Give me the next assignment, like who's the next speaker?' ... It's worth it," Duncan said.

On Friday, volunteers heard from Students for Barack Obama. That's the arm of the campaign that's organizing young people, with 300 chapters nationwide, said Brandon Neal, the campaign's national deputy youth director.

Neal led campers through a team-building chant that included the line, "I don't know what you came to do, but I came to elect Barack."

For Wyant and Brandon Tucker, a junior at Southern Illinois University, the camp was one of the last stops before they take off for unpaid campaign posts in South Carolina. That state is scheduled to hold the first Southern Democratic and Republican primaries.

Tucker said he wanted to go to South Carolina to help Obama court black voters, a powerful bloc for the Democratic party.

"I may not be as smart as everybody in here but I know the people and I know how to talk to the people, especially people that look like me," Tucker said.