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Iowa: The Diner Vote Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn is reporting from Iowa.

Frank Allen Jr. will caucus. "Of course," he says, as if he had just been asked if Iowa had farms, his mustache hiding his stiff-upper lip.

The sixty-four year old and his wife are the only black patrons in Des Moines' popular Drake Diner. Wearing their Sunday best, Frank's wife, Sandra, 58, is certain she's voting for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry because of "the way he presents himself."

Frank still is undecided. He's narrowed it down to Kerry or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, both of whom are surging in Iowa, although the race is a virtual dead heat, according to the latest polls.

"My decision will be made after I listen to everyone at the caucus tomorrow, let them do their pitch," he explains, as he scrolls through the menu of the 1950's-themed diner.

Frank is referring to the practice of one campaign supporter getting to make a pitch for his or her candidate before the caucusgoers make their decisions. "The thing that attracted me to John Kerry is that he is a military veteran," says Frank, who served in the Army in Germany. He said he also liked retired four-star General Wesley Clark, who bypassed Iowa to prepare for the New Hampshire primary.

"I also like Edwards because he's a young man, another straight shooter," Frank continues. "He addressed the minority issues earlier in his campaign. Edwards says, 'Hey I'm from North Carolina and I know things were not right racially in my own state.' North Carolina and South Carolina are some of the worst states for minorities. I know that."

And if you ask him amid the bustling diner, as waitresses and bus boys navigate the Sunday brunch crowd, he'll tell you, dead in the eye, what he has against the onetime frontrunner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "When the issue came up about religion it came out what church he belonged to in Vermont. He left that church because he got into argument about a bike trail. I can't respect that. I will not back any candidate that is not a member of some church. They've got to be church-going; I don't care which church, just church-going."

Drake is exactly how you'd picture a diner in Des Moines. Nearly everyone is in a sweater and, excluding the retired Allens, everyone is white. Chrome and checkered tile span the exterior, topped by a neon-lit sign reading "Drake Diner." Pink neon spans the wooden walls that encircle the linoleum tables and countertops.

"Our business has doubled," waitress Angie Cox, 26, explains. Cox can't caucus; she has to work. "I'm going to vote. I'm just not going to caucus. I'm just very busy. I have three kids to support. It's actually a second job for me right now. It's hard," she says, as her boss, the hostess, looks over with hawkish eyes, wanting this reporter to let her work. The hostess had already kicked out one television crew.

But Robert and Carolyn Armstrong, sitting by the entrance waiting for a table, love the media hype that surrounds Iowa every four years.

"It's exciting to have national media focused on our state and quite frankly most of the United States doesn't know about Iowa at all," the firm-gripped Robert, 70, explains. "They think we grow potatoes. Instead of Des Moines, they call it Dead Moines. It's nice to be recognized. And after the caucus is all over it's like a deflated balloon. It just goes away."

But they're not caucusing tomorrow. "We're Republicans," Robert says. He and his wife have been coming to the diner for nearly 20 years.

"The party left us," Carolyn, 67, adds.

"It centers a lot on abortion but other things too, national defense," Robert continues, as he pushes up his wired glasses.

"We're for helping poor people, but we don't feel everybody should be on welfare," Carolyn says, to explain why she no longer votes Democratic.

Another patron, 53-year-old John Crowley, when approached, says, "Man, did you pick the wrong guy, I'm a rich Republican." He chuckles, his red scarf wrapped around his neck, as he stands in brown loafers beside his wife and daughter.

It's easy to forget that plenty of conservatives live in Iowa, as the state is consumed with Democratic campaigning.

For Alexis Stricker, she's still on the line between Edwards and Kerry. The 27-year-old moved to Des Moines from Atlanta last September. She comes to the diner every other weekend, she explains, her hand beside a red and white stainless steel, Coca Cola napkin holder.

"Edwards appeals to me because I'm from the south. I'm a southerner at heart. I still want to talk to some people from his campaign and I'm still going to see Kerry today. Kerry has more experience and I do like that," she says, her green cotton baseball cap falling low over her forehead. "He's kind of like father figure to me. But Edwards, he's new and I think he deserves a shot."

Striker doesn't like Dean either. The Drake crowd seems to be with the surging Edwards and Kerry across the board. "Dean's just got this celebrity-following thing," Striker, a staunch Democrat said, laughing, fiddling with the straw in her soda.

"He plays the guitar and Bill Clinton played the sax, and you see where that got us," she laughs again. "And there's just something about Gephardt. Every time I've seen him in the media, I just don't like him. I think it's like he's the one kid in high school I probably would never have gotten along with."

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