Somewhere between a Sioux City cafe and a Pottawattamie County awards dinner, Howard Dean used the hours and miles of Iowa's open highway to work the phones.

"This is Howard Dean - from Vermont," said the Democratic presidential hopeful, leaving a message for one county chairman. "Is there somewhere else I can call her? I could call every 10 minutes."

A long shot candidate in a crowded Democratic field, Dean has no time to waste. Crisscrossing the state to visit the 20 most populous counties, Dean has made his pitch at kitchen tables in private homes, small-time political clubs and any place in Iowa where Democrats gather. His campaign, meanwhile, has assembled a list of activists to call and e-mail addresses to contact.

And as the U.S.-led attack against Iraq rages on, Dean is finding that his anti-war message is connecting.

"He's resonating with people," said Jean Hartwell, who heads the Pottawattamie County Democrats and remains neutral.
 
The response of Jill Moravek, a college professor from Sioux City, bore that out. "I appreciate the boldness of your position," Moravek told Dean at one event. "I really appreciate your position."

An aggressive stance and Dean's type of personal contact are crucial in the first-in-the-nation caucus state where come January 2004 fewer than 100,000 Democrats activists will give some candidates momentum while possibly dashing the hopes of others. Dean's grass roots effort resembles the one Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., put together in 1988 when the Democratic presidential candidate won the Iowa caucuses. Gephardt's campaign faltered after that.

Since Dean began his campaign, he has made more than two dozen stops in the state and the pace is beginning to quicken. Jeani Murray, his state campaign director, said the former Vermont governor will spend one week a month in the state, with plans to visit all 99 counties. No other Democratic candidate has devoted that amount of time to Iowa.

"He's done his homework on what a caucus state is all about," said Al Sturgeon, the Woodbury County Democratic chairman and a former lawmaker.

Dean's history in Iowa stretches back more than four years when he helped recruit Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack to run for office. He spoke several times with Vilsack, then a state senator, urging him to run. Vilsack, for his part, has said he will remain neutral in the presidential campaign.

Dean often compares the task in Iowa to campaigning in Vermont, a small state where voters expect to see their politicians up close. "They expect to see you at the Rotary Club," he said.

Still, Dean faces questions about whether he is a one-issue candidate and concerns among Democrats that he lacks the financial backing and widespread support needed to capture the party nomination and unseat a sitting Republican president.

"I'm a fan of his, but I haven't gotten on board yet," said Virginia Hood, a veteran Sioux City activist who backs Dean's stance against the war.

If he has to persuade Iowa Democrats one by one, Dean will certainly try.

At a local cafe, Dean spoke quietly for more than an hour with a half dozen local labor leaders, in hopes of at least opening a dialogue.

"You are all good Iowans and you don't support anybody until you've met them five times," Dean told them. "Well, let's get started."