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Minnesotans help campaign in Iowa
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Howard Dean volunteer Marge Hoffa of Minnetonka spent Saturday in Mason City preparing for the Iowa caucuses. She holds a picture of her 15-year-old daughter posed with Dean taken the weekend before. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
On January 19, Iowans will gather in town halls, schoolrooms and supper clubs to begin the process of selecting a democratic presidential nominee. Nine Democrats are vying for the chance to run against President Bush, and that's made the road to the Iowa caucuses especially competitive. Minnesota's caucuses won't be held until March 2, and some Democrats think the nomination could already be decided by then. But that doesn't mean Minnesotans are frozen out of the process. Hundreds have crossed the border to help campaign in Iowa for their favorite candidates.

Mason City, Iowa. — It's early on Saturday morning in Mason City, Iowa. The second floor of the local Elks Club is busy. Dozens of supporters of presidential hopeful Howard Dean have driven in from Minnesota. They're waiting for their marching orders, trading tips on staying warm and chatting about the recent endorsement of Dean from Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.

Marge Hoffa of Minnetonka is one of the Dean volunteers. Hoffa said she and a friend almost didn't make it.

"I mean, I'm a mom. I work full time. I have two kids and I thought I just can't do this again this weekend," explained Hoffa. "I went home last night, and I got this burst of energy. I did some cleaning around my house and I called him and said 'road trip'."

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Image Minnesota Dean supporters in Mason City

Hoffa held a travel coffee cup in one hand and said she's been a Dean supporter since last spring. That's when her 15-year-old daughter convinced her that the former Vermont governor was a candidate worth backing. She said Dean has already energized the Democrats and attracted new people to the political process.

Computer programmer Lane Schwartz made the trip from Rochester. Until recently Schwartz lived in Iowa. He said working for Dean is the next best thing to actually participating in the caucus. A few weeks ago Schwartz came down and knocked on doors for Dean with his wife.

"I mean you get discouraged when not many people answer the door," said Schwartz. "But every so often you run across someone who is really interested in what you have to say, and you feel like you really made a difference in what they know about the campaign. They may go to caucus when the otherwise wouldn't have."

The 50 or so volunteers will spend the rest of the day knocking on doors in small towns around Mason City. The goal is to convince undecided Democrats to go to their caucuses and support Howard Dean. All the volunteers are given a blaze orange knit cap, plenty of campaign literature, and emergency information.

"What you're going to do is you're just going to go to their house and say 'Hi, my name is Zack and from Austin, Texas. I'm a volunteer for Howard Dean and I'm up here to ask you if you'll be attending your precint caucus,'" a campaign organizer explains to the crowd.

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Image Lynn Wilson

The Dean campaign estimates that more 3,000 Minnesotans will have converged on Iowa by Monday. Already they've made thousands of phone calls, and knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors.

And Howard Dean is not the only presidential candidate attracting supporters from across the border. Dennis Kucinich's campaign drew more than a dozen Minnesota volunteers to the eastern Iowa college town of Decorah over the weekend. Supporters spent time talking with farmers about the merits of their candidate.

John Kerry's campaign was also on the ground in Mason City, where Minnesota volunteers like Lynn Wilson worked the phones.

"Yes, Mr. Courtney, my name is Lynn Wilson and I'm calling on behalf of Sen. John Kerry's campaign here in Mason City. I'm calling to invite you to come and meet with Senator Kerry," Wilson said.

Wilson is a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. She explained Kerry's health care proposals to the Iowan on the line. The call lasted about 6 minutes, and afterwards Wilson said she may have found a convert. The prospective caucus-goer was leaning towards Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, but now he's agreed to meet with Kerry.

Another Minnesotan, Linda Wilkinson from Inver Grove Heights has personal reasons for coming to Iowa to work for Kerry. In recent years a string of events led to the death of her husband, the near death of a daughter, and the loss of her own state college grants. Wilkinson said early last summer she attended a political conference in the Twin Cities and had a chance to speak with Kerry by phone. As a result of that conversation the Kerry paid for the rest of her college education.

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Image Kerry supporters in Mason City

"He pretty much changed my life," she said, her voice quavering. "So I'm here today because it's my way of paying back what he did for me - my kids, he basically changed all of our lives."

Wilkinson will graduate in December.

Many of the Minnesota volunteers plan to be back in Iowa in time for caucus night. They'll make last minute efforts like driving elderly people to their caucuses and a final round of phone calling. They also hope to be celebrating their candidate's victory with other volunteers.

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