DES MOINES — Bang, bang, bang! The urgent knocks came at five minutes to 8. Camp director Ken Brolin, a wiry 64-year-old bursting with energy, bounded up three flights of stairs and raced down the halls, hammering on doors, making sure his volunteers were awake.
“Good morning, Cruz Crew!” Brolin shouted down an empty hallway festooned with red, white, and blue streamers. “Who is going to be the next president of the United States? Ted Cruz!”
More boot camp drill sergeant than camp counselor, he then exhorted his troops to gather in the stairwell in 20 minutes.
“I’m not dressed yet!” a woman hollered from behind closed doors.
“Do us a favor. Get dressed first,” Brolin said, running back down the stairs.
Welcome to Camp Cruz, a defunct business school dormitory where dozens of Cruz supporters have descended — by car, by caravan, by plane — from across the country over the past month with a singular goal: fanning out in subfreezing temperatures to help the senator from Texas win the nation’s first presidential nominating contest on Feb. 1.
If Cruz is going to defeat reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination, it will be on the backs of these volunteers, the bedrock of a ground organization that Iowa insiders say is superior to Trump’s.
Instead of housing its so-called “strike force” at hotels or making them couch-surf with local volunteers, the campaign quietly leased the three-story, 48-bed dormitory near the Des Moines airport last month. It is set to add a second “camp” next door in coming days. (A New Hampshire branch opened in Chester this month.)
This is all part of a plan to flood Iowa’s prairies with canvassers, who are working with evangelical fervor to nominate Cruz. They’ve taken vacation from work, put family life on hold. One young man even ditched his job.
“This is the farthest west I’ve been in my life,” said Jerry Dunleavy, who drove 700 miles from Columbus, Ohio, in a rental car after quitting his job in a child support enforcement agency.
Getting Iowa voters to turn out for caucuses on a frigid weeknight is a challenge for candidates. The process is far more complicated — and time-consuming — than simply standing in line to cast a vote.
Precinct by precinct, neighbors convene in church basements, school gymnasiums, even private homes, to listen to each candidate’s representative attempt to sway the undecided before voting by secret ballot.
The Cruz campaign is importing scores of people to help. More than 250 volunteers, largely from Texas, have already come through the state; the campaign expects that number to triple in the next two weeks. Their job: mobilize likely supporters identified through extensive data mining.
“We tell people ‘Don’t wait for your state. Go to where the action is. If we don’t win Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina, we’re never coming to your state, so you have to help us,’ ” said Rick Tyler, Cruz’s national spokesman.
The Cruz campaign considers the close quarters and daily structure, and the resulting bonds that develop, a strategic advantage. It’s able to deploy troops more efficiently when everyone sleeps in one place. Quiet hours start at 11 p.m., two hours after volunteers return from their 12-hour days of calling strangers and knocking on doors.
Night life at camp is rather tame — considering that volunteers ranged in age from their late teens to their 70s when the Globe visited this week — with the atmosphere of a family church retreat for hard-core conservatives.
Many kept their doors open to the hall, inviting visitors to enter. A group of men in their 60s played dominoes in one room. In another, a new arrival in her 30s did yoga, unwinding after a two-day drive from Maryland. Others chatted quietly, getting acquainted with new roommates.
“Our values are the same. We love God. We’d do anything for our families. We love our country,” Brolin said from his post in his room, where new arrivals check in and receive their keys.
A pile of neatly stacked electric blankets, still in their packaging, sat in one corner. A poster of a Tea Party cowboy — “Our Team Has Spurs on Their Snowshoes!” — welcomes the Texas newcomers.
A “decorating committee” — actually, one person with extraordinary penmanship — had posted a schedule around the building.
Sign waving along Fleur Drive, a main thoroughfare in Des Moines, begins at 7 a.m. — if the temperature rises above freezing. A morning prayer huddle is at 8:15, followed by Bible study at the campaign’s Urbandale headquarters, 10 miles away.
Maggie and Carroll Wright, a married couple in their 70s, arrived in early December shortly after the camp opened, trading their queen-sized bed for the camp’s twin extra-long mattresses.
They had driven 750 miles from their home in Burleson, Texas, drawing honks and thumbs up in their “Cruz mobile,” a 2010 Ford Explorer with a bald eagle painted on the hood under the inscription “It’s time for Cruz control.”
Others had just checked in the previous day, like the sibling trio — 19, 24, and 26 — who flew in from Nacogdoches, Texas. Unfamiliar with the morning routine at Camp Cruz, they cracked their door open on Tuesday, slowly emerging into the hall when they heard Brolin yelling.
“It’s time to get what?” Brolin asked.
“Undecided voters!” an eager chorus shouted back.
Within minutes, dozens of campers — freshly showered and wrapped in layers, in preparation for temperatures 18 degrees below zero, with windchill — crowded into the stairwell.
Brolin ran through a list of activities on his clipboard — Thursday night’s debate party, a Saturday barbecue at headquarters. Then he held up a pair of ice cleats.
“Put this in your subconscious,” he warned, waving the shoe chains in the air, a foreign concept to the Texans. “When you step anywhere in Iowa, walk like you have these on. We want no more casualties.”
He praised the team for crushing their daily phone banking goal, then lead them in a prayer. Heads bowed, eyes closed. Someone’s cellphone rang.
“Father God, thanks for giving this campaign favor,” said Brolin, imploring the Lord to put a “hedge of protection” around the volunteers and the Cruz family. “Help us to be diligent from 9 a.m. for as long as they can go.”
Amen. Another 12-hour shift laid ahead.