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Iowa caucuses bring out the best in presidential voters

It is Democracy in action. Iowa's presidential caucuses have been criticized for being the starting point of the 2008 elections because the state is too rural, too small and, well, too white.

The state's biggest city — Des Moines — has a population of 200,000 or slightly more than Little Rock, Ark. Outside the Des Moines metropolitan area of 500,000 are literally hundreds of small towns and millions of acres of corn and soybeans.

Although they've been criticized for lack of participation — only 124,000 Democrats caucused in 2004 — Iowans treasure this role, pushing this year's event up to Jan. 3 so they could maintain their spot in the lineup. (The New York Times wrote it hoped this year's Iowa-New Hampshire “rush to judgment” would be the last.)

The caucuses are unlike anything else in American politics. The meetings, held in each of the state's 1,781 precincts, are loud and seemingly disorganized. But they work (96 percent of the precincts reported results by 9 o'clock on caucus night).

The first and most daunting challenge is determining how many people are there. Each candidate must receive 15 percent of the vote to be considered a viable candidate and remain in contention.

At one of the larger precincts in Ames, would-be voters had to count off after filling every seat in the local high school auditorium. The count: 628 or half again as many voters as local campaign staffs predicted.

Voters are asked to move to an area of the auditorium with others who favor their candidate. Sens. Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, Gov. Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich attracted fewer than 94 votes (15 percent). (Biden and Dodd withdrew that night.)

Caucus leaders give their followers 30 minutes to change allegiances. After some “negotiating,” those voters re-align themselves with other candidates. The final tally: Barack Obama, 258; John Edwards, 180; and Hillary Clinton, 177.

Most of the attendees at the Ames High meeting were white. Yet they gave 41 percent of their vote to Obama. And not all Obama supporters were young, first-time caucus goers, as the national media would have you believe.

Many Clinton supporters were women, who believe the former first lady has a better-than-even chance of being the first woman president. John Edwards, whose accent seemed to lose some of its Carolina twang in Iowa, attracted a cross-section of voters.

It is small, but where else besides New Hampshire could candidates get so up close and personal. In 24 hours around New Year's Day, voters in Ames could hear stump speeches by Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Biden, Richardson and Romney and never leave the city limits.

Rural? Yes, you won't see a Manhattan skyscraper or 16-lane LA freeway anywhere in Iowa. But what's wrong with having a major primary decided by voters who are surrounded by corn and soybean fields, cattle feeding lots and ethanol plants?

Besides, it's fun to be for something that the New York Times against, again.

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