Caucusgoer Matthew Sorenson registers to vote at the West Des Moines caucus. (Jonathan Gibby, Getty Images )
Reporting from Ankeny, Iowa — The sound system hissed and spit so loudly they finally had to turn it off. This meant the attorney general of Texas had to yell from his wheelchair. Newt Gingrich's daughter had to cup her hands to her mouth and shout. Mitt Romney's second son, cool like his father, effortlessly projected his voice.
It was an Iowa caucus, a messy, delightful, maddening exercise of democracy that takes place simultaneously every four years in churches, schools and living rooms across the state. Each caucus starts at 7 p.m. with the Pledge of Allegiance and pretty much ends as soon as the counting is finished.
Nearly 400 Republicans had come to the fluorescent-bright gymnasium of Prairie Ridge Middle School in this middle-class suburb north of Des Moines. They sat on folding chairs, and in the bleachers. Like many of their fellow Iowans, they were white, mostly middle-aged and looking forward to the end of the months-long process in which presidential candidates spent untold hours and millions of dollars wooing their votes, sometimes one by one.
Now here they were, finally, after all the TV commercials, all the meet-and-greets, the town halls, robocalls, mailers and national attention. The neighbors in the precinct known as Ankeny-7 would listen to five-minute speeches from representatives of each candidate, then cast their votes in pencil on small squares of pink paper.
"I'd like about six of those," joked Gregory Dick, a staff member of the local school district, as volunteer Rick Hermann, 50, passed out the teensy ballots.
Cheating? Is that even possible here? "This is Iowa," said Dick's wife dryly, her tone an implicit rebuke.
"Iowans take this so seriously," said Steve Chasse, 40, a government teacher at nearby Ankeny High School, who gives his seniors extra credit for attending the caucus. "They come here for two hours and make a choice that will affect the nation."
To those who say the system has outlived its usefulness, Chasse said, "I don't think it's ever going to be archaic for candidates to come out and convince voters they have the best ideas for America."
In the bleachers next to him sat 18-year-old Catherine Defino, a student in his economics class.
"I'm excited to see what it's going to be like," said Defino, who planned to vote for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. "I hope he can get a big enough surge to win."
This, she thought, might cause some discomfort for her brother, Anthony, who not only supported Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, but would speak on her behalf.
Not so, said their father. "In the end, we'll all vote Republican," said Lou Defino, "but for now, it's about who you believe in."
Matt Romney, 40, a commercial real estate investor from Rancho Bernardo, Calif., left his wife and four children at home to campaign. This would be his last Iowa stand before departing for New Hampshire, the next battleground in the race for the GOP nomination, where his father is leading by a large margin in polls.
"I'm always a little anxious," Romney said before he spoke. "I'm tempted to ask for a show of hands on how many people could be swayed by a speech."
He didn't. Instead, he did what Romneys everywhere have tried to do on the campaign trail: humanize their dad. "They say he's too stiff, too robotic, too much like a CEO," said Romney, who waited a beat. "He reminds me he was a CEO."
Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott also drew a laugh. Representing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Abbott first told voters how much Perry admired them and how impressed he had been by the caucus process. (And how they should vote for him.)
But people were probably wondering, he said, "Why is that guy in a wheelchair?" Twenty five years ago, explained Abbott, while he was out jogging, an 80-foot oak tree fell on him.
"I hear audible gasps," he deadpanned. "How slow was that guy jogging?"
Newt Gingrich's oldest daughter, Kathy Gingrich Lubbers, had just begun speaking when the microphone cut out. She tried yelling, but the sound system hissed too loudly for her to be heard. Finally someone turned it off, a cheer went up, and she set about trying to persuade the room to vote for her dad despite his "baggage," which included making an anti-global-warming ad with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the "urban myth" that he delivered divorce papers to her mother in the hospital.
"No doubt the manufacturer of the PA system was a Democrat," said Steve Fox, a local father of two who stood to speak for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Ballots were collected in a box covered with shiny red wrapping paper that would have looked right at home under a Christmas tree. About half a dozen people crammed into a small storage room off the gym to count votes.
Within 20 minutes, they emerged with the final count: 141 votes for Romney, 67 for Gingrich, 62 for Santorum, 51 for Paul, 30 for Perry and 10 for Bachmann.
"That is absolutely shocking," said Fox, who spoke for statewide third-place finisher Paul, as the citizens of Ankeny-7 disappeared into the night.