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THE IOWA CAUCUSES: THE DEMOCRATIC CONTEST

Hunger for the White House energizes Democrats

Confidence runs high as turnout for the party's caucuses -- nearly double the GOP total -- eclipses the record.

January 04, 2008|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

URBANDALE, IOWA — The Republicans gathered upstairs, the Democrats downstairs, and for more than an hour Thursday night, the enthusiasm gap between the two major parties could be measured by both numbers and sound volume inside the Central Community Church here.

In all, 303 Democrats were jammed into an overheated basement meeting room that crackled with excitement, while the 198 Republicans who filled the first floor church were more subdued -- as if they were there for services, not for politics.

And that turnout happened here, in this Des Moines suburb's Precinct 7, where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats 747 to 660.

The disparity was repeated across Iowa, where more than 239,000 Democrats -- a record -- turned out to caucus from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River, far eclipsing the 124,000 who turned out four years ago. Among Republicans, turnout also was up but not as dramatically, reaching an estimated record 120,000, up from 88,000 eight years ago, the last time the caucuses were contested here.

As Iowans became the first voters in the nation to pick favorites for the major parties' presidential nominations, the contrasting moods between these two caucuses underscored what could be a significant challenge for the eventual Republican nominee: generating enough excitement to compete with Democrats hungry to win the White House after eight years.

"I'm thinking the Democrats are awfully strong this time," said Republican Donna O'Callaghan, 77, as she sat in a pew waiting for the caucus to begin.

In Urbandale Precinct 7, the Democratic turnout Thursday was nearly double the 154 who signed in there four years ago.

The turnout numbers indicate that "the Democrats are basically satisfied with their choices and comfortable supporting one, two, three or even four candidates," said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political analyst.

By contrast, he and other analysts say, Republicans appear to lack a candidate who appeals across the party's spectrum of social, defense and economic conservatives. Still, although the current landscape favors the Democrats, in the general election the wild card will be the moderates and independents.

Such voters "are not going to vote for a Democrat unless and until they are comfortable that they can trust the Democratic candidate will protect them on the issue of terrorism," Covington said.

In the Urbandale precinct, the 303 Democrats included 110 people who registered as voters when they showed up. Among the 198 Republicans, 49 were new registrants.

Dave Reinders, an independent for years, recently moved into Precinct 7 and on Thursday decided to cast his lot with the Democrats, caucusing for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the victor.

"I'm just sick of the current administration," he said.

Upstairs, Republican Mike Harris, 40, said he believes a Republican could win in November's general election if Obama is the Democratic nominee. "He just doesn't have the experience," Harris said.

But, he said, if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or former Sen. John Edwards gets the nomination, the Republicans will "be in trouble."

Among the Democrats, confidence was running high that any of their major contenders could win in the fall. It became the rallying theme of the night.

"If I sense anything," said Democratic caucus Chairman Tim Boardman as he called the session to order, "I sense a spirit that the Democratic Party is going to win this thing no matter what."

The roar from the crowd echoed through the church.

--

scott.martelle@latimes.com

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