On New Years Day, twenty-four year old Tilden Hagan woke up, wedged himself into the driver’s seat of his full-to-the-gills old Saturn, and drove across America to work for a promising political star.
When North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan told her three children that she was thinking of running for U.S. Senate against Republican Elizabeth Dole, her son Tilden started wondering if he could pull off exchanging his California life for a Carolina one.
Could he move home to Greensboro to help with his mother's campaign and still finish his organic chemistry prerequisites before med school in the fall? Could he bear to leave the promising job he loved, the Boy Scouts he mentored, and the gorgeous coastline where he'd just learned how to skydive? And could he fit all his stuff in his car?
Now, in his hometown of Greensboro, where Hagan's Democratic primary campaign is headquartered, Tilden says the decision made itself.
"When she told me she was running, I just dropped it all," he says of the life he left behind in San Diego. "I couldn't wait to get back here and help out."
Politics is nothing new to the tousle-headed Duke graduate, an unflaggingly energetic worker and athlete who wears a tiny gear from an old mountain-bike on a chain around his neck. His mom first ran for her state senate seat when he was in high school, and talk of committee hearings and legislative haggling dominated dinnertime conversation throughout his teenage years.
But, this time around, he's hitting the road as a surrogate for his mother, speaking to students at colleges throughout North Carolina. He's even bending the same ears as America's most famous chip off the political block, Chelsea Clinton.
Jack of all trades
Since he arrived in North Carolina in January, Tilden has served as a phone banker, computer guru, event coordinator, and leading surrogate for the campaign. An IT whiz, his first task was to set up the computer network at Hagan HQ. He does advance prep work for his mother's campaign stops throughout the state. As the one who knows his mom the best, he jokes, he often gets the job of making sure she has lunch when she's on the trail. He's also been her tutor on the cutting edge of political communication. (He even taught her how to send text messages on her cell phone.)
But his first love, says Tilden, is talking to people his own age about politics.
He's not alone. In an election year buzzing with optimistic projections of youth involvement, the children of political candidates have taken on an unprecedented role as educators of their peers.
Before John Edwards ended his presidential bid, his 26 year-old daughter Cate crisscrossed Iowa's college classrooms to promote her dad's policies. Insiders know that Sarah Huckabee was the gatekeeper to her father's rollicking campaign. Mitt Romney's five sons blogged their way through the early primaries, and John McCain's daughter Meghan maintains an online journal that adds a hip tinge to the travels of the 72-year old war veteran.
And then there's Chelsea.
The former first daughter has visited over 90 colleges in an effort to pump up her mom's street cred with the Facebook generation.
During her latest swing through battleground state North Carolina, Tilden was in the audience at Peace College in Raleigh, where he himself had spoken only days before.
Before the crowd of admiring students dispersed after Chelsea's Q&A session, he got to do what he loves best as a political progeny: talk to his peers about his mom.
"I'm really amazed [at] how much they know," he says of the North Carolina students he has met during the campaign.
"They're the most vocal of the groups I've seen. They're the most excited about what's going on."
With a wide grin, he adds, "I really just feed off of that."
Sharing the challenge with Chelsea
Other than their common goal of mobilizing young people, Tilden shares another challenge with Chelsea; both of their mothers have uphill fights ahead.
Hagan currently leads in the polls against her primary challenger, businessman Jim Neal, but the winner of the Democratic matchup in North Carolina will face Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole.
Critics note that an ill-fated stint as NRSC chairwoman and a spotty record on constituent services have lost Dole a few allies.
But even some Democratic strategists admit that Dole's skillful political style and statistic-defying name recognition in the state make her almost bullet-proof against a challenger like Tilden's mom.
Hagan's son is confident. "I guess I don't see it that way," he replies when asked about the tall odds projected by pundits. He knows that politics can be an unpredictable game, and Democrats are energized enough this cycle to turn the "C.W." (conventional wisdom) on its head.
"I think it's very winnable," he says.
Despite his sunny outlook, though, he's no stranger to the tough task of coolly standing by as a parent takes public heat.
He confesses to fruitlessly searching for an excuse to avoid watching the first Democratic primary debate because he was so nervous on his mom's behalf.
"At the end of it," he laughs, "I realized I'd pretty much been holding my breath for an entire hour."
Picking up the newspaper can be tough too. "When you read something that's personally attacking your mother," he says, recalling some of the more scathing critiques that he read during her first state senate run, "Well, I take it pretty personally myself."
For that reason, he sympathizes with Chelsea Clinton, who has famously faced questions on the campaign trail about her father's headline-grabbing sex scandals in the 1990s. Tilden says that he hasn't been confronted yet with a question that he found too personal to answer. "But if there comes a time," he adds, "I'll know it."
The fight for better medical care
No matter what the result of the North Carolina primary and general election, Tilden – who was just accepted to medical school at the University of North Carolina – has his eyes on a science far more exact than politics. An aspiring neuroscientist, he hopes to help engineer a new generation of nerve implants for patients with prosthetic limbs.
His schooling in politics shines through, though, when he's asked if he would ever consider following in his mother's footsteps. He promises to encourage her to take the fight for better medical care to Washington if his mom is elected, but says he has no plans to join her there.
Well, not yet.
"It's definitely something that I could see myself doing in the future," he admits.
Either way, at some point, he will have to go back to San Diego to retrieve some the relics of the old life he left behind.
Try as he might, last January, he just couldn't fit all of his stuff in that car.