DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Christopher Dodd doesn't have much money. He barely registers in opinion polls. But he does have one thing going for him in his long-shot quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
He has the firefighters.
When Iowa Democrats gather in precinct caucus meetings Thursday night to cast the first presidential votes of the year, most will hear local firefighters stand up and make impassioned pitches for Dodd, a senator from Connecticut.
They'll hear from other people about the other candidates, as well. Local politicians. Teachers. Government workers. All backed by moneyed networks that phoned people, arranged baby sitters, drove them to the caucuses.
Yet while the International Association of Firefighters is much smaller in number and resources than the huge unions that are backing other candidates, the firefighters hope they have something rare when they rise to speak in church basements and school cafeterias: the respect of their neighbors.
That helps in the unusual world of precinct caucuses, an oddity of democracy in which a lone voice can make at least some difference.
Unlike the privacy of the voting booth, caucuses require people to declare their support in front of their neighbors and allow them to change their minds during the hour-long meetings.
That's where people such as John TeKippe hope to deliver more votes for Dodd.
TeKippe is the local firefighters-union president in Des Moines, a veteran organizer whose members helped sway caucus attendees to support John Kerry four years ago while such behemoths as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union backed Howard Dean.
This time, the firefighters backed old friend and ally Dodd, grateful for his work on such legislation as the Fire Act, which has helped Iowa fire departments buy equipment, and the Safer Act, which has helped them hire extra people, not to mention the rest of his record.
They know he's a very long shot, but they thought he deserved and needed their help.
"We're not very good at following numbers or money," TeKippe said. "Our membership isn't like other labor."
Working for Dodd, the union's 1,500 members in Iowa are doing what they did for Kerry in '04, hand-delivering letters to neighbors, urging everyone to come to the caucus and to bring more people with them.
"It means more to have a family member or friend ask," TeKippe said. "We'll buy the pizza, whatever it takes to make the caucus feel like home."
And of course, they'll try to win people over to Dodd, especially when caucus rules force all those whose candidates have less than 15 percent of the local vote to find alternatives.
"This is about Iowans in a neighborhood," said Harold Schaitberger, the national president of the union.
"Firefighters are admired. They are trusted, respected. They're Little League and hockey coaches. They raise money for muscular dystrophy. They're part of the fabric of their neighborhood. What comes with that is the good will and respect."
A respect he hopes will win some votes for Dodd.
Schaitberger thinks that Iowans who don't already support one of the top-tier Democratic candidates — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama — are up for grabs by still-unknown second-tier candidates.
He knows that Dodd isn't going to win as Kerry did. But he thinks that his members can help Dodd come from nowhere into fourth place, and get enough attention to go on to other caucuses and primaries.
"A lot of decisions are made literally inside the caucus," he said. "It's somewhere between sumo wrestling and full-contact politics."