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Tampa Bay area volunteers brave Iowa winter for Mitt Romney

Dixie Eklund, 41, of Palm Harbor drove 22 hours to Iowa to volunteer for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In a former video store in Des Moines, she calls Republican voters.

Alex Leary | Times

Dixie Eklund, 41, of Palm Harbor drove 22 hours to Iowa to volunteer for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In a former video store in Des Moines, she calls Republican voters.

DES MOINES, Iowa — The man on the phone said he probably would not turn out for caucus night. Too far away.

Dixie Eklund was having none of that.

"I drove 22 hours to be here and help you guys," she said. "The whole nation is counting on you to get this right. If I can drive 22 hours, you can drive six minutes to get to the caucus."

The man laughed, "Fair enough."

If Mitt Romney is victorious in today's caucuses, it will be at least in part due to volunteers such as Palm Harbor's Eklund who have placed thousands of calls to Iowa Republicans in recent days from a former Blockbuster video store.

Eklund, 41, who's in sales back home, has spent about $1,200 to be in wind-chapped Iowa for the final days of the campaign.

"We felt like we were sitting around Florida waiting for something to happen, and I had the week off," she said.

Matt Lettelleir, 27, of St. Petersburg flew here out of the same devotion. He got the idea after watching a debate with a supporter of Ron Paul and suggesting his friend throw a party on caucus night. "I went home that night and said, 'I should just go to Iowa,' " he said.

Lettelleir, who has worked in Florida campaigns, grabbed a room at a Hampton Inn and on Friday alone logged 250 calls for Romney. "You just hope they'll show up," Lettelleir said over the yelps of fans at a bar watching Iowa State play Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

He said two-thirds of the people he spoke to were committed to Romney. Others were favoring Rick Perry or Rick Santorum.

"(Newt) Gingrich," Lettelleir said, "is not doing well."

As cold as it has been here in recent days — it was 27 Monday afternoon, but the wind chill made it feel like 15 — the Floridians have it easy compared to 2008, when volunteers were met with even lower temperatures and snow piles.

Romney's effort has been largely focused on the phones, and that's kept volunteers inside the protective walls of the old Blockbuster, where Chick-fil-A sandwiches provide fuel. Handmade signs on the wall read "Go Mitt" and "Mitt 4 Prez."

Campaign officials made it clear they were not expecting a win when Eklund called to offer help: "They told me, 'I don't want you to come all this way and be disheartened.' "

But the race has changed by the day, and Romney has a slim lead in polls.

Eklund's ear was fixed to a cellphone Sunday. A computerized system makes the call, but it's her job to deliver the pitch. As a reporter was leaving, she excitedly waved him back and revealed a checklist of uncommitted voters. Most of them said they would go with Romney.

"This is why I'm here," she said. "I love it."

Tampa Bay area volunteers brave Iowa winter for Mitt Romney 01/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 10:34pm]
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