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Anatomy Of A Caucus

CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn was inside a vote-filled caucus room in Iowa and filed this report before heading east to follow developments in the next stage of Campaign 2004.



In the fluorescent school cafeteria Joanna Schroeder arrives. She's glowing over Dennis Kucinich. An adjunct professor, Schroeder does admit immediately that it's unlikely there will be enough supporters for the Ohio Representative to be viable. She'll stand by her man, until her man can't stand, she says. Then, "Well then," she proudly asserts, "Woo me."

The other campaigns will try. They'll berate her. They'll charm her. They'll debate her. But Schroeder won't come easy. "I'm a Texan by birth," she says. But that comes in later.

Cars are still pulling into the red-bricked Central Campus High School. It's 6:30 p.m. and across this mostly rural, mostly white, and most informed of states, the dedicated Democrats of Iowa are ready to caucus. Old women in burgundy chairs sit low, at low lunch tables, asking each caucus-goer to sign their name. Those who aren't Democrats are declaring themselves part of the party (at least for tonight, everyone must be a donkey). And Schroeder may just be the most stubborn of them all.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has the most signs taped to the wall of the cafeteria. There is a tray of yellow-sugar cookies in the front with "Dean" written in blue icing. His campaign is offering coffee. It's the only campaign there whose precinct captain actually has a T-shirt saying such. His people arrived early.

Ohio Sen. John Edwards' people are pasting up signs. So are the other Senator's supporters competing tonight. Massachusetts own, the John Kerry camp, has posted portraits of him. Some images show him in Vietnam, a surefooted young man with his boat crew. His cap tilted downward, the young Kerry is smiling just as he does today (enthusiastically, though pained as well).

People are sitting in burgundy chairs. The burgundy shades are closed. The brown and burgundy tile is cold and sterile. The room could be any school cafeteria in America.

Meanwhile, Paulee Lipsman is hard at work. She's been the captain of this precinct since 1988. Drowning in a red-wool coat, the 56-year-old's face gets lost in her bobbed hair and large glasses. Even with her experience, she's still nervous. Her voice is already hoarse. She's got a caucus to run.

"This is the beginning of the process in which the Democratic party nominates the man who has the best chance to be president," says Lipsman, whose day job is director of Democratic staff in the Iowa House of Representatives.

"I haven't seen energy like this since 1988; this is democracy at its best," Lipsman's voice lifts in excitement. "It's people who study the issues, learn about the candidates, watch the debates and make up their mind on who they're going to support and are willing to stand for several hours on a cold winter night at some school."

It's about 20 degrees outside this school; an American flag waves slowly atop the building. Stephanie Pickens, 36, walks up to Lipsman and greets her with a hug. Holding her three-month old daughter, Pickens is wearing a white Edwards' sweater. Lipsman has a Kerry sticker. Chairmen can support a candidate. They simply must separate their duty from their affiliation. Lipsman does just that. "I couldn't find a sitter," Pickens tells her friend. "Everyone was going to the caucus." Lipsman smiles, proud of her fellow Iowans.

It's now just past 7 p.m. and Lipsman, who can barely be seen over the podium, declares the caucus closed to newcomers, as election rules prescribe. The room is packed. Standing room only.

This is Precinct 67, one of 1,993 that span the Hawkeye state. Pickens sets her daughter Eleanor on the table. The baby is dressed for the occasion - red, white and blue with an Edwards pin, bigger than her chubby but tiny hands.

"Eleanor for Edwards," giggles Pickens. "There are a lot of Dean people here," she continues nervously, "but this attendance shows that Iowa takes this seriously."

I ask her if this state with 532,000 registered Democrats should hold such sway over the nation. In modern elections, no candidate that didn't place higher than third in Iowa has won the presidency. "Look around," Pickens responds, "I think we take our role so seriously and we really meet and shop the candidates before we make up our mind."

Lipsman has to ask those attending to confirm her again as the caucus chairman. They do. They elect a secretary, a friend of Lipsman. As if this was church, Lipsman passes around envelopes for donations to the state and county Democratic parties.

Attendees discuss whether to count attendees on paper or verbally. "Whatever's faster," an elderly Dean supporter yells. The caucusgoers agree. Some chuckle. They decide to do it out loud.

Lipsman is pleased. She's done this too long to waste time on bureaucracy. She's has letters from state elected officials that she can either read or pass around. She passes them around and now gets to the business of counting those here. The mike squeals and they begin to count.

One by one, an Iowan says his or her number and then points to who's next. The count continues on. Ten turns to 11. Ninety-seven turns to 98. People tap shoulders. Raise hands. Some yell their numbers. Others get confused and their neighbor has to remind them where the count stands.

Number 189 is a Vietnam Veteran. Kevin Anderson, 53, dons a cap much like the one worn by Kerry in his Vietnam photo. A USMC insignia is at the front of Anderson's. Several small combat ribbons adorn it, including a Purple Heart that he earned for being wounded in combat. The candidate he's here for, Kerry, was awarded three of those. That's what persuaded this lifetime Iowan to attend his first caucus.

"John Kerry brought me here," he proudly whispers as the cafeteria count continues. Anderson then dips his head downward, as if he was bowing to Kerry right before him. "A lot of veterans are coming out for the first time because of him. I've been talking to them on the phone at Kerry's headquarters."

"WWI had Harry Truman, and WWII had Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and it's our time," he says, lifting his right hand in emphasis, a faded Harley Davison tattoo on his forearm. "And if we got to go into some armed conflict in the future, I want somebody who's been shot at and missed, shot at and hit. It seems to me that he's the perfect choice."

The count concludes. The room has 254 caucus-goers, the most in this precinct since 1988, according to Lipsman. The chairman quiets the room, and multiplies the room count by 15 percent (the proportion of those attending needed to be viable) and gets 38.1.

This number is central to the rest of the night. For any group of caucus-goers to count they will have to total 38, either behind a candidate or undecided. For every 38 people, the group will get one delegate. There are nine to be doled out. Undecideds will also need to hit that mark. In 1976, the undecideds beat Jimmy Carter, the caucus winner, by 10 percentage points. But because he beat all the other candidates, he had the momentum to go from an obscure governor to president.

Lipsman tells those attending to stand for your candidate. Caucus-goers erupt in commotion. Lipsman screams over the mike, telling Edwards people to stand in one corner, Dean's at the center, Kucinich's people are off to the side (many laughing). Kerry's supporters are directed to the back of the room. Gephardt's in back as well. She then has to go through the other Democrats not participating in Iowa.

A sole Joe Lieberman supporter stands at the front, as the hordes group together for their candidates. Steve Wandro, 46, raised money for Lieberman. A trial lawyer, Wandro worked for the Connecticut senator until Lieberman decided to bypass Iowa to prepare for New Hampshire.

"I was very disappointed that he left the race," the tall and thin Wandro says. He looks around the room and realizes he's the only Lieberman supporter. "I don't know why anybody in their right mind wouldn't vote for someone who beat Bush once already," he says, laughing, but still very seriously for Lieberman. He has been since the centrist Democrat was the vice presidential nominee of Al Gore in 2000.

The staunchly Kucinich-supporting Schroeder walks by Wandro. She intends to stand with her fellow left of the left Democrats. Wandro's fellow Kucinichers are as she expected. It looks like they are well short of the requisite 38 caucus-goers. The Dean people are there first. Edwards' supporters follow. They now have a half hour to convince the Kucinichers to join their camp.

Across the room, chants from the Edwards camp shouting "It's our time" fill the cafeteria. It is clear that although the Deaners had the most stickers, most shirts, most organized presence, they fall short of the most people. But they're trying, always trying. They are still the most inspired as they work hardest to woo Schroeder and the rest of the Kucinich supporters.

Kerry's attempt to follow-up the Edwards chanters, as they yell: "JK all the way." They aren't as loud, but the ever-polite Iowans backing Edwards, give them their chance. Gephardt's people realize they aren't viable either. The camps send people their way as well. The room fills with cheering and heated discussion. It's like the school boosters merged with the debate team and the young democrats, to form this convoluted political pep-rally of sorts.

Des Moines history teacher Maureen Murphy, 54, is trying to convince fellow instructor Schroeder, to go with Kerry.

"I'm considering Kerry or Edwards," Schroeder says.

"Well, with Kerry's record you know he's the real deal, that he's not lying," Murphy responds.

"I think Edwards has the strongest platform but I think if anyone can get something done, it's Kerry," Schroeder replies, pausing, her eyes drawn back in thought. "I have never voted Democratic in my life. I'm an independent," she says, to explain her dilemma.

"You should vote for Kerry because he's the strongest candidate," Murphy perseveres. "He's the one who can beat George Bush."

"Yeah, but with the exception of Bush senior there has been no president that has been beaten in the middle of a war. Do you honestly think Kerry is going to beat Bush in the middle of a war?"

"Yes," the hair-sprayed blonde responds to Schroeder. "I do. He's been in the military. He knows what war is like. Bush doesn't. I think he can do it."

Schroeder still is going undecided and walks off in her gray sweater, pausing only to fix her ponytail. The Kucinichers are leaning this way, hoping some of their fellow unviables - Gephardters - will join them and they will have at least 38 in their camp. By going undecided, the 38 allowing for one delegate, those supporting the unviable do not give votes to Kerry, Edwards, or Dean, hoping that their candidate will do better in other precincts.

Murphy still thinks she can get Schroeder. "I've been convincing people for three months, one at a time," Murphy says. "This is American history in the making and no matter what candidate we nominate our ultimate goal is to beat George W. Bush."

It clearly is. Throughout the room this is the one unifying theme. They want Bush's Oval Office seat. It's the central argument of Edwards' and Kerry's folk, in their effort to woo undecideds, hoping to gain more delegates.

The 30 minutes of wooing ends and they tally the supporters. Each group counts its number and reports it to Lipsman, who is busy watching over the room to make sure all are civil and those who support unviable candidates know their options.

Kerry has won with 95 caucus-goers. Edwards people follow with 81. Dean's campaign has 75 (the count, a harbinger of statewide results still to come). Supporters of each viable candidate cheer when their man's name is said.

But there are still two undecideds and Wandro as well. He's a trial lawyer; he's used to fighting losing battles. But the litigating Lieberman supporter is ready to settle. He's just waiting for the best argument to come his way. Lipsman announces that there will now be another 30 minutes allotted to attempt to convince these three Iowans. Groans are heard. They missed Schroeder in the count. She stands by the Edwards' camp but in her indecision, as she talks with Edwards' supporters, Schroeder doesn't realize she has to count herself as undecided.

Schroeder still struggles as if her decision is the next president (most in the room take their decision as seriously). Edwards or Kerry. Edwards or Kerry. The Edwards people are telling her that their man is from the south. She likes that as a Texan. It's winning her over. But then she says: "This is a big deal for me, this is the first time I've caucused. I had Bush as Governor. I had Bush as President. That's why I came here because I want to vote for the person who can get him out office."

Schroeder decides on Kerry, believing he has the best chance to win the general election. "I think he can win," she asserts, although she's still fond of Edwards. "In the end I wanted someone with a strong military background."

A 14-year-old is about the room. One of a dozen children of caucus-goers, Stuart Johnson sports a T-shirt that falls near his knees. It reads "Generation Dean." He's got the orange winter hat of Dean's dedicated. He's wearing a button with Dean's name on it. The red rubber bands of his suspenders match the bold-red type that reads "Dew," on the Mountain Dew he's been drinking while staying awake for nearly 40 hours. He's trying to convince people to go with Dean. Wandro, the Lieberman backer, is listening, enjoying the fervent youth's pitch (no one bothers to bring up the fact that if you aren't eligible to vote in the caucus you are not supposed to be pitching caucusgoers).

"Dean's just a great guy," says the husky eighth grader. "The $87 billion that went toward the war could have gone to education," Johnson persists. "Dean is going to take our country back."

Lipsman yells the count. Kerry is the official victor. But the eventual statewide winner's backers at this precinct fail to notice that they now have Schroeder. And the professor fails to tell them she's now joined their lot. She isn't counted. But it doesn't matter as none of the group verges on gaining another delegate. The two undecideds and the Lieberman-supporting Wandro go for Edwards.

Lipsman writes the final tallies on a chalkboard in the front of the room. Both the Kerry and Edwards camps are ecstatic. Lipsman counts Kerry's victory as 95. The veteran caucus captain then multiplies that total by nine (the number of allotted delegates to this precinct). She divides that sum by the total caucus attendees (254) and comes up with 3.36. Rounding down, Kerry has won three delegates. She repeats this math for the other two viable candidates. Dean and Edwards also gain three delegates.

The caucus-goers applaud. It's shortly after 8 p.m. and the caucus-goers cheer an even split, as if this was schoolyard race that ended in a tie, and all the parents are happy to see none of their children were losers. But make no mistake about it, the Kerry people are overjoyed. Edwards' folks are proud. They have come so far in a week's time. And Dean's backers, as dedicated as ever, are disappointed they came in third by count, even though they broke even on delegates. Indicative of the candidates third place finish statewide, being the most organized campaign in this room did not translate into victory.

The ceremony plays out as Lipsman summons Edwards and Dean representatives to watch her call in the final results. As a Kerry backer, she takes on two roles, one as monitor, another as caucus captain. Some red tape does follow. Those who will represent the precinct as delegates are decided. Only the Kerry folk vet this out, too many people want to represent the Massachusetts senator who just weeks ago appeared an unlikely winner.

Schroeder leaves unbothered that her vote wasn't official. "I'll vote for who ever faces Bush anyway," she says. Her heart remains with Kucinich. Her choice of Kerry differed from the bulk of the Kucinich supporters, who went with Edwards (many saying they did so because Kucinich had asked his people to do so if he was not viable).

The young Dean backer, Johnson, is as dedicated as ever. Wandro still thinks Lieberman will make the best president. Lipsman's voice is even more hoarse. She's tired and ready to exhale.

The Gephardt people are clearly the most disappointed, and they do get some sympathetic comments from Dean supporters, expressing sentiment for the Missouri Representative who won Iowa in 1988. Kind words are also heard from a few Kerry and Edwards backers. Everyone knows it's the end of Gephardt's nearly two-decade long pursuit of the presidency, and maybe, a milestone for a soon-to-be wintering politician. The candidate who once looked the most entrenched, who predicted a victory tonight, couldn't even get enough supporters in this large caucus to remain viable.

"I'm sad," says Pam Amstrong, a Gephardt-supporter. "I think this precinct is more white collar. When we didn't have enough to be viable, I tried to go undecided but we didn't have enough there either, so I picked Kerry. Kerry has always been my second choice. He and Dick Gephardt are not far apart on their views on trade and education. Kerry would make a wonderful President but I'm still going to keep my fingers crossed for Gephardt," the 50-year-old continues, her eyes a damp red. "I think he still could win Iowa."

Not more than an hour later she'll find out he lost and rumors circulate in the national media that soon Gephardt is going to drop out of the race. He doesn't tonight.

Tuesday, Des Moines (Iowa as a whole) will be like a boomtown gone bust, the glitter of the national media, of those two-year campaigns, gone for another four years. Des Moines will be quiet again.

Schroeder will go back to teaching college students. Lipsman will go back to the capital. And the press will go off to New Hampshire. The first primary is a week away. It'll be colder. Dean will have an entrenched former four-star general in Wes Clark to beat (Clark did not compete in Iowa), as well as Kerry, the other veteran of this race and tonight's caucus victor. Edwards has momentum from his second place finish, but still an uphill fight.

Dean's teen supporter, Johnson, wants to follow the pack to New Hampshire. But his mother won't let him.

Maybe it's just as well.

He's only 14 and Johnson, exhausted, has got to get back to school.

By David Paul Kuhn

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