MASON CITY, Iowa — Saturday dawned gray and glum in this former brick-making town on the northern edge of the state. The leaden sky hung low, the same dark shade as the ice-slicked pavement. Howard Dean's nine-vehicle caravan drove quietly past shuttered homes, past empty streets, past the deserted parking lots of ShopKo and Target.
But inside the North Iowa Community Center, more than 500 people spilled out of a brightly lighted hall for an 8:30 a.m. breakfast with the Democratic presidential candidate, buzzing excitedly as the smell of pancakes wafted through the air. When he entered the room, they stood with a roar, flapping blue Dean signs in the air.
"On Monday at 6:30, you have the power to take back the White House and stand up for America, for our America and our values once again," said Dean, wearing a broad grin despite the heavy bags under his eyes. "We are going to take the White House back, because you're going to help us do it."
Dean may have lost front-runner status in this pivotal state, which holds the first presidential contest of the season on Monday, but he hasn't lost his confidence. As he circles Iowa on a 631-mile bus tour, trying to rack up as many last-minute supporters as possible, the former Vermont governor is relaxed and cheerful, batting away suggestions that his campaign is in trouble.
"I really believe in the people that believe in me," Dean told reporters Saturday morning, explaining his optimism.
Polls may show him in a dead heat with three other candidates. But Dean insists polls cannot gauge the dedication of his supporters, people such as Arlene and Curtis Terhark, retired farmers who drove 40 miles over icy roads from St. Ansgar to hear Dean speak in Mason City. Afterward, Curtis Terhark said that he planned to corral as many Democrats as he could today at his church and local coffee shop and persuade them to caucus for Dean on Monday.
"We're going to get as many there as we can," said Terhark. "When he talks, I listen to him. And it soaks in enough to where it stays with you."
Mason City resident Alan Steckman, a semiretired business professor, said he had been spending 10 hours a week making phone calls and holding organizing meetings for Dean.
"I think his chances are very good, but the pack is very compressed," said Steckman, wearing a Dean T-shirt and three Dean buttons. "I'm anxious to get through Monday night."
The candidate, however, does not seem to be fretting.
"Rested, ready to go," an upbeat Dean said, describing himself as in "full combat mode." He said later, "I believe we can win, and I believe we will win, based on the efforts that are going on to get people out." The candidate, who recently has held news conferences every few days with the media traveling with him, rode on the press bus twice Saturday to chat with reporters. At one point, he took a television producer's camera and jokingly filmed the media corps.
Dean said he was energized by the presence of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who has joined him on the bus tour.
At a rally in Council Bluffs on Saturday, Dean exhorted 600 foot-stomping, cheering supporters gathered in a junior high school gym to go to caucus.
When he's not preaching from the stump, he's pressing the flesh. During a stop at a diner in Grinnell on Friday, Dean sought out every patron, urging each one to caucus Monday night.
He approached Barb Trish, a political science professor at Grinnell College, who was sitting at the counter with her two sons.
"Can I get your help?" he asked.
Trish told him that she was backing Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
"Can I be your second choice?" Dean asked.
"No, I think I'm for Edwards as my second choice," she said, referring to North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"Aw," said the candidate, clearly disappointed.
"Thank you for running," Trish said consolingly. "We really appreciate it."
But Dean was undeterred. He turned to Harkin. "She's a Gephardt supporter, Edwards as her second choice," Dean told the senator. "We've got to work on her."