Deanies in Iowa: Those crazy middle-agers

They got up before the sun January 15 to drive nonstop to bitter-cold Iowa for their man, Howard Dean. It's the sort of crazy idealism you expect from college students. Only these road-trippers are waaaaay out of college.

Don Wells laughs like a hyena when it's pointed out that he might be a little mature for such hi-jinks. Between his guffaws, Wells, 62, responds, "Doesn't that tell you something about how dead serious we are?"

Wells is one of eight locals, a group in which college students were decidedly in the minority, who caravanned to the Iowa caucuses.

"We've got a retired federal prosecutor on our team, a 25-year foreign service veteran, and a neuropsychologist," he says. In fact, he estimates the average age of local Dean supporters is "maybe 45."

But why Iowa in the dead of winter? Didn't he get enough activism in college?

"I wasn't that kind," says Wells, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. "I was too busy going to grad school."

Wells used vacation time to go door-to-door in Iowa last weekend, and he acknowledges how weird it is to drive 1,000 miles to knock on doors and ask strangers to go out on a cold Monday night to vote in the caucuses.

But it's also a measure of his commitment to doing something about what he calls "a corruption of the nature of government" in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He's not too happy with the "distortion" of the national press, either.

Says Wells, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

Jean Wyant, 50, who signed on to the Dean campaign last spring, echoes Wells. What motivated her to make the journey is "the direction this country is taking, particularly with the unwarranted war and the news media coverage." She admires Dean for being the one candidate to oppose the war, and for his message that people can have more control in their daily lives.

And she and Wells are not alone. An estimated 3,500 grassroots Dean volunteers flooded into Iowa to get out the vote.

"We feel Iowa is the most important stop on the entire road," she says.

She and Wells, decked out in the fluorescent orange caps worn by Dean canvassers, were assigned to Burlington.

"You can't believe how hard this is," said Wells during a brief rest on Caucus Day. On both Sunday and Monday, he drove 80 miles west to Ottumwa to go door-to-door in windy 16-degree weather. "I was okay until the sun went down," he reported. After that, "I was suffering from wind chill, and my fingers were numb."

Just in case there's any doubt, he added, "This is not a vacation."

The Iowa caucuses, held in each of the nearly 2,000 Iowa precincts, were open to anyone who registered and would be 18 by November 2. "One of the more thrilling moments was to tell a 17-year-old kid he could be an adult on Monday night," crowed Wells.

He calls canvassing a "business of ones and twos," and notes that for the field of five Democrats clamoring for position in Iowa, each voter is significant.

Wells was assigned to be a poll watcher at a precinct during the actual caucus, with heat the obvious benefit of that assignment– at least when he was allowed inside.

That Dean came in third on Monday night with just 18 percent of the vote doesn't deter mature supporters like Wells. And even Dean's concession speech, in which he emitted the now-famous guttural yelp, was not off-putting to Wells or many other Dean-backers. In fact, Wells says he heard from supporters present that "Dean was at his best that night."

And Wells himself is not deterred. To demonstrate that he's behind Dean for the long run, at midnight following Monday's caucus, Wells put his wallet where his mouth is.

"I pulled out my credit card," he says, "and made another donation."

Local Deanies gather before hitting the road to Iowa.