Dramatic races inspire 'huge' response from first-time local voters at caucuses
The hardest part might not have been finding a candidate to support, but finding a place to park.
Mirroring statewide results, Republican Mike Huckabee upset Mitt Romney, and Democrat Barack Obama held off John Edwards and Hillary Clinton in crowded and enthusiastic Buena Vista County caucusing Thursday night - while swarms of new voters turned out locally to register for the first time.
In unofficial results in Buena Vista County, Huckabee piled up 32.5 percent of the support in a secret ballot by the almost 700 Republicans who turned out. Romney had 22.6 percent; Fred Thompson was a close third with 21 percent.
Romney won only Lakeside and Storm Lake 2 precincts, while Huckabee prevailed in Storm Lake 1, Alta, Newell, Linn Grove, Marathon, Rembrandt and Albert City. Thomson won Storm Lake 4. The other three precincts saw ties among the three front-runners.
Among Buena Vista County Democrats, who instead of a ballot negotiate delegates to send on to county convention, Barack Obama won or tied for the lead in 10 of the 13 precincts, including all four in Storm Lake. Countywide, Obama claimed 37 percent of the delegates to beat out John Edwards with 31 percent, and Hillary Clinton was third with 27 percent.
Edwards won only in Alta and Newell precincts. Clinton did not win any precincts, but tied for the delegate lead in Storm Lake 2, Sioux Rapids, Marathon and Linn Grove precincts.
Turnout Surprises Leaders
"We were expecting a bigger turnout than usual, and we thought we were prepared," said county Commissioner of Elections Karen Strawn, who was still struggling to get more offficial results from most of the precinct captains late Friday.
"I think part of the response was due to the fact that there is so much talk that Iowa shouldn't have the first caucuses, that we are too small or not a good indicator of what the people are seeing," she said. "It looks like we let the rest of the nation know Iowa should be taken seriously."
The wide field of candidates and relatively good weather also helped motivate local caucus-goers, she said. "With the attention most of the candidates gave to the Storm Lake region, people sure can't say they didn't have an opportunity to get involved."
The candidates who chose to largely overlook northwest Iowa - like John McCain and especially Rudy Giuliani - suffered for it with lower-tier showings.
The three Democrat front-runners have combined for a total of seven speeches delivered in Storm Lake, and the two GOP front-runners have also delivered messages here first-hand. [See photos, page 8B.]
"Huge!" is the way Strawn describes the flood of Buena Vista residents who took the opportunity for a same-day voter registration at the caucuses this year.
At one site, registrants were standing in deep triple lines that threatened to overwhelm volunteers at times, hurriedly filling out new voter forms against the wall or kneeling on the floor.
"I only have forms in from eight caucuses out of 26 total so far - but the stack of new voter registrations on my desk is already at least two inches high," Strawn said.
The Cacus Experience - Democrats
From business suits to sweatshirts, senior citizens to teenagers, 85 Democrat caucus-goers crouched on South Elementary lunch tables in Storm Lake Thursday night, a microchosm of the first stage of the choosing of the next president.
The throng at this precinct quickly divided into four groups for four viable candidates. About 10 percent of the turnout was high school/college age participants, who helped push Obama to a win in this room - his 30 supporters good for three delegates. Clinton and Edwards were second and third here with two delegates, and Richardson was barely viable with a single delegate.
Lacking numbers, nine Biden supporters had quietly yielded and dispersed to other candidates' corners, where supporters yelled comments such as "Come on down!"
Tables labeled with names such as Dodd and Kucinich remained empty - after dismal performances statewide, both would end their campaigns.
Paul Pedersen found himself the lone uncommitted participant in this particular precinct.
"Each one of the candidates I have heard had some good points, but they all also have said things I can't agree with," he explained.
"I think there are really three big issues in this campaign - the war, immigration and health care - and of those, since I work in the health care field, that is the one I have really wanted to hear about from them."
At the last moment, Pedersen walked to the Edwards corner of the room, to a smattering of applause from that enclave.
The only platform plank to be proposed in this precinct involved making health insurance more affordable.
Emmet Hammen, partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair, said he would not have missed the opportunity to caucus.
"This is what we should be doing - this election is going to be a very important one, and there should be more people than there are taking part," he reflected.
His pet peeve with the campaign is candidates making what he feels are false promises. "I hate to hell to hear a guy saying he's going to do something, when it wouldn't be within his power to do it," he said. His choice was Clinton.
Other caucusers felt that the historic nature of the election helped to bring out a crowd. "In one election, you have the chance that the first woman in history, the first African American in history or the first Hispanic American could become president," one man said. "There should be more young people here to see this happening."
The Caucus Experience - Republicans
The race was spirited among the 69 GOP faithful who cast votes in a precinct at Storm Lake High School - Romney edging Huckabee, 69 to 67 in this particular room. Thompson had 56 votes, McCain 40, with a smattering of votes for other candidates.
The turnout in Storm Lake's four Republican precincts was stronger than in past caucuses, said Bill Strawn, chosen as chairman at this caucus.
"Thanks for being Republicans. You're important to the party," he told the crowd.
As good Republicans, their first order of business was a pledge to the flag. Participants were invited to promote their chosen candidate - only Romney and Thompson had participants stand up to speak. Afterward, some participants said they thought more information on the various candidates should have been shared.
Jim Treat pushed for Thompson, quoting Dwight Esienhower - "History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid."
"We are living in the most perilous times we have ever endured," he told the group.
Caucus participants split up among their precincts.
"This is where it all begins," one man from precinct 2 said. "We're not overly active, but we're interested - and we should be."
One of the youngest participants, Britanya Small, a first-time caucus-goer, was trying to drink in the experience.
"It's interesting. I might learn from people who have a history of hearing from the candidates... I want to learn all I can because I want my vote to count."
Her candidate didn't carry the night, but she said she will support the Republican candidate who wins the nomination.
After the voting, the group assembled again to choose delegates and share platform proposals.
They mentioned issues like protecting freedom of religion and including "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, coins, currency and government buildings - a plank that brought applause.
Other issues in this gathering included support for right to life legislation, border security, preserving traditional marriage and opposing all hate crimes.
"This is grassroots - this is where you get your two cents in," Strawn said.
On getting involved
"There are a lot of horses on the field, and that makes it close and makes it fascinating," said Keith Betts, attending the Democrats' precinct 2 caucus in Storm Lake - where Clinton and Obama each earned three delegates. "To be in Iowa with all this is great. The world is focusing on Iowa tonight."
"More people need to be involved to make their voices heard. I think it is kind of a privilege to be among the first people to have their voices heard," said caucus participant Janet Halder.
"Everybody should do this at least once. Find somebody you believe in once," said Jone Lichter, who recalled once being a precinct chairperson during the Jimmy Carter campaign - her precinct then had 13 people, none of whom backed the then-unknown president-to-be. In comparison, he causus on Thursday saw 72 participants.
Chris Rienert was one of the younger first time caucus-goers in Alta, where 92 Democrats gathered at Spectra Health to see Edwards edge out Clinton and Obama. He explained what made him participate, "All of the hype. It is also part of my obligation being an American citizen. You can't complain if you don't give your choice."
Loretta Graham had a different reason for taking part. "Because I am very frustrated with the current administration's lack of recognizing the needs of the middle class of this country," she said. Her choice was Edwards.
"It's a fun process. It's exciting to see our minority residents taking part in this," said Hugh Perry, who was chosen chairperson of his caucus.
Not everyone agreed with the need to take part.
"I tried talking people into coming to this thing, but they didn't believe me," Calvin Boyd said.
"We need more young people, all these kids at high school and college who don't know they can come," added Trudie Nord.
One staff member from the high school said that there had been talk among some of the students who supported Obama of not coming out - fearing he would be assassinated in the same fashion as John Kennedy, if he is the eventual nominee, and not wanting responsibility.
Both parties were thrilled with record caucus turnouts.
Iowa Republican party leader Chuck Laudner told the Pilot-Tribune that he thought citizens had measured the candidates against their personal convictions.
"Once again, Iowans proved themselves worthy of their responsibilities," he said.
* Dana Larsen, Lorri Glawe, Tyler Kirkholm and Trudy Schroeder provided first-hand coverage of caucuses around the area.