'Deaniacs': Have dream, will travel

Campaign: Avid supporters leave their jobs and families behind to spread their passion for Howard Dean.

January 17, 2004|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - It's anybody's race at this point, the pundits and pollsters are saying, which should have the former front-runner's volunteers here highly anxious. Or at least thinking second thoughts about how they dropped everything back home - in New York, Maryland, California and seemingly all points in between - to come to this frozen expanse of a state, certain that their efforts would propel Howard Dean to his first victory on the road to the presidency.

But just try to get any of them to give up, turn around and go home at this point.

"This is ground zero," said Ryan Davis, 21, of Ocean City as he tapped away on a laptop in Dean's campaign office here during the final push before caucus night. "Until you've been to Iowa, you don't know what a campaign is."

Davis is among the thousands of volunteers who have flooded the state for the first contest of the presidential campaign - Monday night's caucuses - when voters will pick from the Democratic pack of eight candidates and thus begin narrowing the field for the rest of the states whose primaries come later.

The "Deaniacs" are, at 3,500 strong, the largest group of volunteers by far in Iowa, outstripping the hardhats that the union-friendly Richard A. Gephardt has marshaled, or the veterans-heavy forces that John Kerry commands.

Unconventional group

And the Deaniacs are probably also the most unconventional by political campaign standards. They can sometimes seem more like a group of traveling Phish heads than an actual campaign organization - a lot are young; a lot are virgins to this quadrennial event of electing a president. Many found their way to the Dean campaign though the Internet, particularly the meet-ups organized in various localities over the Web, befitting supporters of a candidate who flaunts his outside-the-political-establishment credentials.

Davis was a theater major at Marymount Manhattan College, taking a year off to work on a film in New York, when his distress over the direction the country was taking prompted him to drop everything six months ago and join the Dean campaign.

He was part of a barnstorming effort across 32 states that was interrupted when the campaign's Airstream exploded and died in Arizona. He has toiled in the campaign's Burlington, Vt., office, even after a promised salary never materialized and he ended up having to work in a deli to support himself and his growing addiction to getting Dean elected.

About a week and a half ago, Davis was sent here, and the campaign found him free lodging in the spare bedroom of a local supporter, where he sleeps in a child-sized bed outfitted in SpongeBob SquarePants sheets. But most of the time, he is on the job, working out of a messy sty of an office with borrowed tables and chairs and volunteers who have been thrown together from across the country for the race to what is the finish line in Iowa but the starting point for the rest of the campaign.

He has been working largely with getting young voters to the caucuses - the campaign is throwing a party for high school students this weekend with free pizza and, as Davis notes wryly, "what they call `pop,"' which Easterners such as himself know as soda.

These intense last days have been an emotional roller coaster.

"Every day, my mood goes up and down," Davis said, in track with the vagaries of the daily poll numbers. Still, he has taken the recent numbers that show other candidates gaining on Dean with a shrug. His rationale: Pollsters work off telephone lists that probably skew against a good portion of Dean's base - young people and those connected to the world largely by cell phone. Both of which describe Davis himself.

"I haven't had a home line in a year," he said.

Iowa has proved a delight to the out-of-towners. It is, after all, a political junkie's ideal state, where voters are remarkably well-read and current on the issues. Because of its first-in-the-nation status, candidates spend a lot of time here, and it is a rare voter who hasn't logged face time with at least one of them.

"There was an 84-year-old woman I met who said, `Well, I've met four of the candidates, but I want to wait until I meet the rest of them before I decide,"' Davis said.

While Davis is perhaps the stereotypical young Deaniac, the campaign has attracted its share of older volunteers who have left families and jobs to similarly take to the road for the political version of Lollapalooza.

Steve Prosser, 50, grew interested in Dean after attending a meet-up, and found a felicitous break in his work schedule that allowed him to leave his home in Hesston, Pa., on Wednesday and arrive, 874 miles later, in Davenport, Iowa, the following morning.

The restaurant he runs in a summer resort area is closed for the season, and one of the construction jobs he takes in the winter was temporarily on hold.

"I had to tile a bathroom, but the tiles were on special order and wouldn't be here until Tuesday," Prosser said. "So I took off."

Up for any task

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