Campaign Crawlers

A Night at the Caucus

Live from the International Room at Iowa Wesleyan College.

By 1.20.04

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa -- Iowa Wesleyan College is a tiny campus in Mount Pleasant, not far from the southeastern corner of Iowa. The International Room at the Chadwick Library held the Democratic caucus for one of the Mount Pleasant precincts. It was standing room only, with 90 eligible participants. I noticed that only about 10% of those assembled were of college age. So much for all that Dean youth support.

Oops! Make that 5%. Four young men turned out to be from the local Christian high school, fulfilling an assignment from a government class to attend a caucus event. They came to the Democratic one because they figured that would be more interesting. That showed real dedication to the class assignment, for they were all Republicans. One of them, Paul, invited me to his "Bush Party" afterwards.

The moderator was a woman wearing a "Dean Precinct Captain" T-shirt. At the beginning, she gave a classic Democratic bit of instructions, "We want your groups to have equal number of women and men, and any other group you consider to be important."

If there is any doubt that this is the Party that likes government, check out the bureaucratic-like rule for apportioning the delegates. The number of delegates a candidate receives is the number of members supporting that candidate at a particular caucus multiplied by the number of delegates that particular caucus elects (which, in this particular case, was 14). That sum is then divided by the total number of eligible caucus attendees. Got it? Oh yeah, candidates must meet a 15% threshold to qualify for any delegates. Republican caucuses do it based on a straight vote.

The first indication that this might not be a good night for Dick Gephardt came when the first vote tally was taken. Gephardt had only seven. It must have been particularly embarrassing given the Dennis Kucinich received eight! The other counts: John Edwards 34, John Kerry 20, Howard Dean 16, Wesley Clark 1, uncommitted 3. When I needed a chair to sit down, I headed to the Al Sharpton area.

After the initial vote, it was time to caucus in hopes of drawing the support of those who did not meet the 15% threshold, or perhaps attract enough support to reach the 15% threshold on the second vote. During this period, one supporter for each candidate could get up and make a speech. Earlier, I had noticed a gentleman named Bill whom I had spoken with at a John Edwards event late last week. He was a Kucinich supporter, who told me that he was worried that Kucinich was so honest that the Bush forces would do away with him like they did with Paul Wellstone. When I asked how he knew of the Bush conspiracy, he replied, "I just go with the Internet stuff." I had hoped he would get up and speak for Kucinich. He did not disappoint. "Dennis Kucinich touched people in an undeniable way." He later hinted darkly, "I believe Paul Wellstone lost his life in a dishonorable way." I later made a point to get his last name. He refused me, saying that "those are inflammatory things I said."

The woman moderating the caucus was Beryl Shahane, and she got up and spoke for Dean. Then a man got up and spoke for John Kerry. His name was Leon Shahane. The anecdote of the evening! Leon informed me that he was initially a Dean supporter because of Dean's opposition to the war. Being a World War II veteran, he was turned by a veterans' group supporting Kerry. He wasn't too concerned about Kerry's vote supporting the Iraq resolution. "All candidates make mistakes," he said. "I am concerned about it," Beryl piped up. "It didn't demonstrate leadership. Kerry knuckled under to Bush." I then asked about their dinner conversation. "Oh, we agreed not to discuss this," Leon replied. That's probably why they've been married almost 51 years.

The count on the second vote was Edwards 41, Kerry 22, Dean 18, Gephardt 4, and 5 uncommitted. I spoke to Romajean Messer, one of the four who had stuck with Gephardt. She listed many of Gephardt's strengths as reasons for sticking with him. Then she lamented, "He's just not forceful enough, but so sincere, so caring." It was enough to make one almost feel sorry for Gephardt. I definitely felt sympathy for Romajean.

Two unrelated bits not directly related to the Mount Pleasant caucus. Howard Dean never realized the extent to which his arrogance may have hurt him. A few days ago he started running a radio ad that began, "Sometimes in our nation's history, one man of courage who stands up makes a difference." Telling listeners that you've made a mark on history before you've even won the Democratic nomination -- now that will appeal to a lot of undecideds.

Second, I wish a I had a dime for every supporter of every candidate that said, "I feel he is the only candidate who can beat Bush." I'd have an awful lot of dimes. With everyone saying that, one wonders to what extent they are, at least subconsciously, worried that no candidate can…

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