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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

A Dean secret weapon in Iowa

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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- In his forthcoming book, "The Presidential Nominating Process: A Place for Us?" political author Rhodes Cook quite correctly identifies the Iowa and New Hampshire voters who every four years make the nation's first and most influential choices of a presidential nominee as "kingmakers" and the voters in the states that follow the Big Two "the confirmers" and the "rubber stamps."

In this reporter's judgment, Ross Wilburn -- a 38-year-old Iowa City Council member and African-American, who is executive director of the Johnson County (Iowa City) crisis center that provides personal counseling, food and emergency assistance to those in trouble -- could very well be a major kingmaker in the 2004 selection of the next Democratic presidential nominee.

It's not because Ross Wilburn backs former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the consensus "Rookie of the Year 2003," which he does. But because what Ross Wilburn and the Dean campaign volunteers are now doing could be a secret weapon in increasing dramatically the voter turnout in the Iowa caucuses, which ordinarily draw about 10 percent of the number who vote in the state's general elections.

In the last three years, the crisis center has been working overtime. Since 2000, the number of those needing emergency food assistance has gone up by 65 percent. This year's budget to buy food was entirely spent by April, three months before the end of the fiscal year. The staff has scrambled.

Johnson County people have responded with their time and their treasure. The number of regular volunteers has more than doubled. Those living at the margins have found encouragement and shelter from the sometimes-unforgiving world.

On a Thursday morning in July -- before heading to meet undecided voters in Keokuk County, Oskaloosa and Ottumwa -- Howard Dean joined his volunteers filling bags of groceries at the Johnson County Food Bank.

Nothing new here, you could say: Politician proves he's caring and compassionate by spending 10 minutes helping out in front of cameras and microphones at orphanage or soup kitchen before leaving for very private, no-press-allowed fund-raiser with distinguished citizens who seek only a minor change in the tax code that would exclude "those corporations founded in Delaware before January 31, 1975," or something similar.

What potentially makes this scene quite different is that the campaign volunteers, dubbed the Dean Corps, encouraged and inspired by Ross Wilburn, have made a commitment to return each and every week to the food bank.

Dean legitimately boasted that his local volunteers had brought 320 pounds of groceries, this week alone, to the food bank. The governor gives credit for the Dean Corps idea to "the young people." He sees it as a way to show that "campaigns are not just about votes, but, more importantly, are about people."

The Dean Corps has already been involved in environmental cleanups, which given the popular image of the Vermonter's following, is not surprising. But if a presidential campaign actually does perform valuable human and social service and helps to restore a fraying sense of community, that could potentially change the entire dynamic of the caucus turnout next January 19.

Imagine the profound contrast between the Dean campaign volunteers feeding the hungry and comforting the lonely with the Bush pioneer/rangers corralling their $200 million swag for a primary in which the president is unopposed.

Later, in the Copper Lantern Restaurant in the rural town of Sigourney, Dean answers questions from 50 undecided Democrats. He is confident, articulate and direct. He does not bob or weave. His stump performances have even impressed conservative columnist Robert Novak, who reminds Republicans (many of whom are salivating at the prospect of running against the man who legalized civil unions in Vermont) that Democrats -- in California in 1966 and nationally in 1980 -- had been certain they would win in November if the GOP would only nominate the eminently beatable Ronald Reagan.

But unlike the Gipper, who put a smiling face on conservatism, the doctor does not brim with optimism. The self-deprecating humor is neither particularly self-deprecating nor funny. He is a candidate who seems likely to win more admiration than affection. It is worth remembering that in the last half century only two American politicians have served two terms in the White House.

Both were invincible optimists -- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But still, keep an eye on Ross Wilborn and all his colleagues in the Dean Corps. That could turn out to be the big difference in Iowa.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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