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At one precinct, a punctual ritual of persuasion

Speeches and sweets are employed to try to inspire fellow Iowans to 'realign' with favored Democratic contenders.

January 04, 2008|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

BONDURANT, IOWA — Picking a president is serious business, but there's always the chance that chocolate-chunk cookies will make a difference. When it was suggested to Marsha Marlow and Carol Lockard by Clinton headquarters that they show up Thursday in the library of the local high school with cookies, they took no chances.

"Kind of our bribe," said Marlow, who arrived early to set up a table with stickers, posters and sweets.

Gary Thierer, precinct captain for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, showed up early too. When the Edwards people urged the architectural draftsman to bring cookies, he had declined. "I thought that was a little much," he said.

The library of the Bondurant Farrar Junior-Senior High School was one of nearly 1,800 locations where citizens were invited to discharge their most important duty as Americans in the arcane ritual known as the Iowa caucuses.

A capacity crowd of 147 friends, neighbors and strangers -- twice as many as in 2004 -- gathered among the books and computers to declare their allegiance to Democratic candidates. They were mostly middle-aged or older. One-third were first-timers. Though the process sometimes got a little messy, it was never less than inspiring.

Here were a pair of retired 60-year-olds, Kurt and Beverly Terrell, native Iowans who had never caucused before. They came to support New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, they said, because Kurt's father, who died last year, had been a fan. He was buried with a Clinton bumper sticker inside his casket.

Another novice, Sam Pattison, 19, an Iowa State University student, had come to his first caucus with his parents and 17-year-old sister. The Pattisons, who support former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, almost left disappointed. Each candidate needed 23 votes to be considered a viable contender. In the first round, Richardson had 19.

Temporary precinct Chairman Chuck Fuson, a lawyer with a mild manner and firm grip on caucus rules, announced after the first round of voting that each group would be allowed to give a speech on behalf of its candidate. If persuaded, people could shift into other groups, possibly breathing life into near-dead candidates. In caucus speak, this is "realignment."

Sensing his moment, a slightly nervous Sam Pattison began to speak.

"The thing that sets Richardson apart," he said, "is that he wants to fix things. He wants to work hand in hand with the American people."

Clinton's group, despite the cookies, was in trouble. In the first round of counting, the former first lady had 21 votes. A middle-aged woman with short curly hair stood and made her pitch: It's a twofer deal, thanks to Bill Clinton.

"I'm sure he'll give her advice," she said. "We can't lose."

The Edwards people were sitting pretty. They had 65 votes. Thierer gave a speech anyway. (He was hoping for an Edwards sweep.) "He has such a positive attitude," Thierer said. "Edwards is ready to be president."

A man next to Thierer piped up: "And one more thing. Democrats haven't elected a president not from the South in 50 years. . . . It's about electability."

That did not sit well with Paul Coates, precinct captain for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. "We don't have to have a Southern candidate," said Coates, an Iowa State associate professor who received applause from the 32 Obama voters seated behind him. (Much of Iowa, it would seem later, agreed with Coates.)

"Someone who can provide leadership is what we need," Coates said. "He'll bring Republicans and independents in. He can make the agenda of the Democratic Party a reality."

Fuson announced that Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., with only five votes, had not made the cut but allowed that it was possible a speech on his behalf could change things. "Does anyone want to speak for him?"


Tom Turner, 72, had already abandoned Biden for Richardson, who became viable in the second round with 23 votes.

"I sold out," Turner said. "They needed to be viable. I'm sorry Biden didn't get much support. The same thing happened to me in 2004. I picked [Richard] Gephardt, then realigned to [John] Kerry. I never pick a winner."

Jim Nelson, a 47-year-old farmer, stood among the Edwards group. He turned to his neighbor, a Richardson fan who was looking for a few more votes. "Is there a bottle of Jack in it for me?" he asked.

After the first vote and the speeches, while things were still slightly up in the air, Rachel Lopez-Hohenshell, 34, an editor, writer and student, turned her attention on Carrie Boyer, 24, a teacher's assistant. Boyer was standing with the Edwards group, but Lopez-Hohenshell could tell she was wobbly. "I made it my mission tonight to find someone who hadn't made up their mind," she said.

Boyer, moved by Lopez-Hohenshell's passion for Obama, migrated to the Illinois senator's corner.

Voting, which began at 7 p.m. sharp, was over by 7:40. The final tally: Edwards, 67; Obama, 33; Clinton, 24; and Richardson, 23. By the fuzzy math of the Iowa caucus, because each was viable, each would receive one of the precinct's four delegates.

You could say there were four winners in Bondurant on Thursday night, but you'd also have to declare someone like Diane Klemme a winner too. Klemme, 35, a real estate loan officer, had left her husband at home with their two young children to attend her first caucus.

Though she was nervous just before the caucus started, she walked out with a sense of pride. "One reason I am here is so the country knows we're not just a bunch of hicks in cornfields," she said. "We can make a difference."


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