When voters head out to meet candidates, they typically show up with cameras, homemade signs, the candidate’s latest best-seller, hand sanitizer, and, in the case of at least one aging McCain supporter, a potty mouth. But an emerging, loosely organized number of South Carolinians are meeting candidates with prepared questions about the type of federal support needed to treat a third of the world’s HIV/AIDS cases. Or the $60 billion wasted on antiquated Cold War weapons systems. Or the 65 percent of convicts who are high school dropouts. Or the one billion people who live on less than $1 a day.

Anybody who asks a candidate a question at the hundreds of events across the state are coming with some sort of agenda, but this grassroots, coordinated pressure by a group of voters is called bird-dogging, named after the practice of chasing birds out into open fields. It’s nothing new to folks in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the practice is almost as old as the glad-handing, rural, house-by-house campaigning that candidates have come to expect from these early voting states. And the attention on South Carolina as the third big primary has S.C. voters jumping into the fray, ready to challenge candidates on a variety of crises.

“We’re an early primary state so we have this responsibility,” says Mary Carol Jennings, a third-year med student in Columbia. “I have this privilege to talk to the candidates that other people don’t have right now.”

And Jennings is taking advantage of that privilege. She and other med students are heading out to campaign events armed with questions about South Carolina’s failure to provide AIDS medications and the federal government’s missteps in addressing the global threat of the disease. The state was shamed into boosting assistance to a federal drug program after it was reported that three people on a S.C. waiting list died for want of AIDS medicine. Meanwhile, President Bush has promised more than $15 billion to assist in fighting AIDS globally, but activists say $50 billion is needed over the next five years, along with eliminating trade restrictions on generic medicines, a move that could cut costs for developing countries struggling with the AIDS crisis.

The students go to great lengths to get their face time with candidates. Seeing a notice about a book signing by Sen. Joe Biden but unable to fork over $25 for a copy, Jennings checked out the senator’s book from the library and brought it for him to sign. Biden ended up giving her a copy.

While book signings and diner chats offer an intimate way to get their message across, the real stress comes from town hall meetings, says Barry Wright, another bird-dogging med student.

“It’s a lot more pressure in a setting like that, because you only have 20 or 30 seconds to get your idea across and hold their attention,” he says.

Responses to the med students’ questions have been mixed. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee seemed totally unfamiliar with the students’ AIDS concerns, Wright says, while Sen. Hillary Clinton brought up South Carolina’s prescription problem unprompted and said she’d encourage the state to invest more in treatment.

“Some may give a generic response, but ultimately as the season goes on, we’re seeing more progress,” Wright says.

That progress has included across-the-board support from the Democratic candidates, including pledges from the three front-runners to fully fund the $50 billion. While Republicans haven’t been as concrete on their support, they are clearly getting the message.

During a campaign stop at a burger joint in the Upstate, former Sen. Fred Thompson brushed off a question on the AIDS funding. But days later, when asked a similar question at a New Hampshire event, Thompson suggested he was getting educated on the issue.

Other bird-dogging groups have coordinated in the early primary states with their own TV crews, fancy logos, and T-shirts to address global poverty and education needs. Even South Carolina’s mayors have gotten in on the bird-dogging, albeit in a more professional manner. A group of more than 100 of them issued an open letter to candidates on priority issues, including climate change.

Educating the candidates has long been a responsibility for activists in the other early primary states, says Steve Varnum of Priorities NH, a group calling for a shift in discretionary federal spending away from unnecessary military programs.

With other seasoned pros, Varnum has hosted day-long seminars for budding bird-doggers. The training includes lots of role-playing, with experienced bird-doggers playing both candidates and handlers in just about any scenario where a voter might get to talk to a candidate — from town halls and rope lines to diner visits and just walking down the street. Both Wright and Varnum say it’s important to get noticed early during a town hall meeting. Sit in front and get your hand up first. But also be persistent.

“If you don’t get to ask your question, don’t give up,” Varnum says. “There’s usually the rope line afterwards (for handshakes). Any type of contact is an opportunity to bird dog the candidate.”

One Priorities bird-dogger gripped Mitt Romney’s hand down a long hallway until she got an answer to her question on nuclear waste.

“While you’ve got their hand in yours, you can hold on to that hand and ask them the question on your mind,” Varnum says.

Priorities NH volunteers have attended 436 New Hampshire events and asked 190 questions, a solid average considering a candidate might field five questions at a stop. They’re also working together to get more from the candidates. On one recent Saturday, former Sen. John Edwards told two bird-doggers during separate stops that he would eliminate a particularly wasteful weapons program. When Varnum got called on at an evening event, he referred to Edwards’ earlier answers and asked the candidate how he planned to do it.

“The candidates say, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to get current with this real quick,'” Varnum says.

Other candidates are embracing Priorities’ unusual campaign props. Gov. Bill Richardson has pulled out a writing pen the group hands out with a list of federal budget concerns wrapped around it. And at one campaign stop for Sen. Barack Obama, Priorities NH had a character actress in a June Cleaver outfit handing out cookies adorned with the group’s logo, a pie of federal discretionary spending that implies military waste. She set a cookie on Obama’s stool, and the candidate eventually used the cookie during his stump speech to prove a point on the budget.

But it’s not just the candidates these groups want to reach.

“Part of bird-dogging is educating their staff, the media, the crowd, and anybody else in the room,” Varnum says.

After all, presidents come around every four years, but the push for progress never ends.