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Caucus-goers also friends and neighbors

The Iowa competition is usually free of the rancor that can often tinge the larger races.

January 02, 2008|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — Fred Adams, a retired Drake University history professor, wandered across the street from his house for a neighborhood party the Sunday before Christmas -- 5-8 p.m., food and drinks -- where he spotted Tammy Gentry.

"I saw my opportunity," Adams said later, "and I took it."

Adams knew Gentry was leaning toward former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in Thursday's first-in-the-nation caucuses. But her husband, Brian, was backing Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, as everybody on their block of 44th Street could tell from the lawn sign outside the Gentry house. And it was the sign that Adams, one of Edwards' caucus captains for Des Moines Precinct 53, wanted to discuss.

"I walked up and said, 'Jeez, what's the deal with the sign? Is there still room for Edwards?' " Adams said. By the end of the week an Edwards sign had gone up next to the Obama sign.

"That's how it kind of goes," Adams said. "You're at a social situation, and if you know they've been kind of leaning your way, you go up to them."

The Iowa caucuses are famously intimate affairs, no better illustrated than here in the Democratic battle for Precinct 53, with its 1,200 residents living in less than a square mile of stately homes near Drake University.

The stretch of 44th Street between Kingman Boulevard and University Avenue is a veritable captains row of caucus activists. Adams and his Edwards co-captain, Jim Fowler, live here, as does Kevin Techau, the precinct captain for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Obama's precinct captain, Carl Wiederaenders, lives just off the end of 44th on Kingman.

The connections are more than neighborly. Wiederaenders attended the University of Iowa in the late 1970s with Techau, and they both volunteered on Jimmy Carter's 1980 presidential campaign. Wiederaenders and Teresa Vilmain, director of Clinton's Iowa campaign, co-chaired the 1978 University of Iowa homecoming committee.

"Teresa and I and Kevin and many others have known each other for 30 years." Wiederaenders said.

Because of the close friendships, the caucus captains say the competition has none of the rancor that occasionally tinges the larger campaign. "None of this is going to cause any long-term repercussions," Wiederaenders said. "We're all dear friends."

When talk-show host Oprah Winfrey swung through Des Moines recently for an Obama rally, Wiederaenders left a voice mail for Clinton-backer Techau, offering him tickets. "We didn't follow up," Techau said wryly.

"The thing that's interesting about the caucus is it is pretty much neighbor to neighbor," said Techau. "People who want to participate in the caucus at some point become very open about who they support and it's a very collegial conversation. . . . It's kind of a mix of modern campaigning, the things that are on the Web, and the door-to-door canvassing."

But it is still serious competition. Precinct 53 will award six delegates, the captains said. From there, predictions differ.

The Obama campaign expects about 220 caucus-goers overall at Roosevelt High School, the local meeting site. Wiederaenders said that by last weekend, 103 people had told the campaign they were firmly for Obama, but the campaign estimated that 69 people would actually show up. That would be just under a third of the expected total, and just short of the campaign's goal of two delegates.

Techau said the Clinton campaign expected as many as 300 people to turn out, and hoped to win three or four of the delegates, a showing that would require at least 150 supporters. Edwards co-captain Fowler estimated they could count on at least 40 Edwards supporters.

For some attendees, the caucus will be their first. For others, it has become a quadrennial ritual.

Edwards-backer Adams, a Vermont native who moved to Des Moines in the late 1960s, attended his first caucus in 1972 at Fowler's house.

"I think we had 13 people," Adams said.

Fowler, a lawyer, recalled a faux pas that year when he designated the gathering spot for supporters of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to mount a credible campaign for a presidential nomination. "I made the mistake of sending the Chisholm delegates to the kitchen," Fowler said.

Of the major candidates' captains, Wiederaenders is the most active in the current campaign. He has made phone calls, gone door-to-door, button-holed neighbors in social settings and on the street, and opened a nearby vacant house he owns as a command center for the Obama ground game in northwest Des Moines.

On Saturday morning, Wiederaenders stole time from his family to volunteer for another two-hour canvassing shift that included 44th Street.

He met with mixed success.

Some neighbors rebuffed him -- politely -- saying they were backing someone other than Obama. A few, including the Gentrys, didn't answer the door. Their cars were parked in the driveway, suggesting they may have been ducking the conversation.

"It's crazy," Tammy Gentry had said in an earlier interview. "I bet we have, nightly, three to five telephone calls. . . . I don't mean to portray this as negative. We're so fortunate to have all these great candidates here. It's just the daily grind. It just gets to you."

At some doors, Wiederaenders entered into something like electoral conspiracy.

But some, Wiederaenders acknowledged, were beyond his reach.

As he walked down the steps at the home of fellow Obama-supporter Tonya Swanda, who had been lobbying Tammy Gentry to back the Illinois senator, Swanda pointed to the fresh Edwards sign in the Gentry yard next door.

"I guess we lost Tammy," she said.

"Yup," Wiederaenders said, "we lost Tammy."

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