LE MARS, Iowa, 12:29 p.m. “This has to be about something more than celebrity,” Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd told a crowd of 30 as he stood atop two stacked forklift palletes. “This has to be about something deeper, much deeper – about substance and about who has the ability to lead this country.”

This week is likely to make or break the campaign for dark horse Dodd, who has lagged in polls in Iowa and nationally since the announcement of his candidacy in January. At the 4 Brothers restaurant in Le Mars, Dodd asked Iowans to look past his relative obscurity and “prove the national pundits wrong.”

A third-place finish here would be an impressive victory for the veteran Connecticut legislator, although Dodd left himself room in the expectations game to finish fourth, telling those in attendance that “Iowans could punch three, even four tickets out of this state.”

Harold Schaitberger thinks he can make that happen. The general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters union has been on board with the Dodd campaign since August. He has traveled to all 40 local firefighter unions across Iowa, urging members to support Dodd and lending “firepower” to a campaign that Dodd admits has few celebrity allies.

Dodd - Dec. 30

Chris Dodd at an event in Le Mars, IA at the 4 Brothers Restaurant. Dodd discussed his experiences in the Senate, the need for substance over celebrity in this year’s election, and made a passionate appeal for Iowa voters to believe in his underdog crusade for the nomination.

Only time – and Iowans – can accurately predict the future of the Dodd campaign at this point. Schaitberger says it would be a mistake to count Dodd out now. The IAFF, he said, plans to stick with Dodd to the end, whether that be Thursday night or November 4, 2008. This is familiar ground for the firefighters. In 2003, the IAFF got behind John Kerry in August – about the same time they began backing Dodd this year.

“We were with John Kerry back when he was at 2 percent. Everybody wrote him off, said he’s in the toilet,” Schaitberger said. “Fact of the matter is, when the smoke cleared, we were right there with him.”

And it may just be that Dodd has found an underestimated well of support in the firefighters.

“Our guys operate best when you tell ‘em they can’t do something,” Stoenbeck said of the responsibility placed on the shoulders of Iowa firefighters. “Suppose you’ve got a precinct with 70 people. A firefighter walks in with his five – you’ve got six people [supporting Dodd.] You need 11 to be viable. You see a neighbor over there with Biden – they’re short, you say ‘Hey, come over here with us.’ You see a neighbor over there with Richardson – they’re short, you say ‘Hey, why don’t you stand with the firefighters?’ All of a sudden, you’re viable.”

On caucus night, Dodd will first have to hope for viability – that golden 15 percent of a precinct’s caucus-goers that allows a candidate to stand. Without 15 percent, the candidate is declared inviable, and supporters are required to back a second-choice candidate or sway enough supporters of other inviables that their first choice breaks the 15 percent threshold. Schaitberger’s analysis of Dodd’s caucus-night strategy swings toward the latter.

Zack Abrahamson