They shook voters' hands. They handed out colorful fliers and stickers. They gave impassioned speeches to cheering crowds.

These are die-hard Democrats who campaigned not for John Kerry (search), but for themselves. The goal: becoming a delegate to THE political event that comes once every four years, the party's national convention in Boston, set for July 26-29.

"It's just like campaigning for political office," said delegate candidate Elsie Mosqueda, who greeted people and handed out stickers bearing her name before the start of the Virginia 8th Congressional District Democratic convention at a middle-school auditorium in this Washington suburb.

Republicans are gathering, too, in many states to decide delegates to the GOP convention in New York, Aug. 30-Sept. 2. Like Democrats, they are meeting in school halls, hotel ballrooms and community centers to make their picks.

Being a delegate means getting a chance to wear funny hats, exchange campaign buttons and rub shoulders on the convention floor with thousands of other political activists. Delegates typically pay their own way.

"I had to break out of retirement and do something to get rid of this president," delegate candidate and retired doctor Tom Connally of Arlington, Va., told Kerry supporters at the recent convention in Alexandria.

About 45 minutes south, in Fredericksburg, Va., Mike Zaner, a Kerry delegate candidate from the 1st Congressional District, opened his speech with a low-key, to-the-point approach.

"Many of you know me here. I'm Mike Zaner and I want to go to Boston," said the union representative from Spotsylvania, Va. "I hope you will vote for me."

National convention delegates formally choose a party's presidential nominee. Aides said last week that Kerry is considering a plan to delay accepting the nomination at the convention to help him stay financially competitive with President Bush.

Generally, the better a presidential candidate does in a primary or caucus, the more convention delegates they are allocated.

Convention delegations theoretically should mirror the country in terms of race, ethnicity, education, income and other demographic factors, though that rarely happens, said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

The 2000 census showed the country was about 75 percent white, regardless of ethnicity. An Associated Press survey of 2000 convention delegates showed that 68 percent of Democratic delegates were white, compared with 83 percent of GOP delegates.

While the census showed that 24 percent of U.S. residents were college graduates, more than 70 percent of Democratic and Republican delegates had bachelor's degrees.

Democratic delegates typically are more liberal than rank-and-file voters, and Republican delegates are generally more conservative, Madonna said. "They represent the activist wings of their parties," he noted.

Christina Ramirez, executive director of the Morris County, N.J., Republican Committee, is on the June 8 primary ballot to be a delegate for Bush.

"I've demonstrated hard work and tenacity in working for this party," said Ramirez, who has never attended a convention. "Since I was a kid, I've been watching conventions."

Delegate selection varies by party and state. Some state parties use primaries. Some use caucuses and conventions. Some use both systems.

Some people become delegates because of their elected office or because of their influence within their party.

Presidential campaigns still have a big say. Generally, a campaign signs off on the slate of delegates. In many cases, campaigns look to reward a loyal volunteer or important supporter with a trip to the convention.

"You want to do right by everybody, but it's hard to juggle all the mechanics," said Laurie Moskowitz, a Democratic consultant who headed delegate operations for Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "The rub is you just can't take care of everybody."

Democratic campaigns must balance that job with the need to fill delegate diversity goals that vary by state. All states have goals to fill delegate slots by race and ethnicity. Some also set numerical objectives so gays and lesbians, young and old Democrats and disabled people are represented.

Some black and Hispanic Democrats, analysts and advocacy groups have complained of a lack of minorities on Kerry's senior campaign staff. But party officials and activists said there have been relatively few problems attracting minority delegates.

State Republican organizations generally do not set numerical diversity goals, but party leaders say this year's delegation will be the most diverse yet.