DES MOINES, Iowa – A near record 122,000 Iowans braved bitter cold here Jan. 19 to attend Democratic caucus meetings in a dramatic display of their determination to defeat George W. Bush Nov. 2. On the eve of the caucuses, four candidates were in a dead heat, spurring people to turn out in droves, especially youth and other first-time caucus-goers.
Churches, libraries, and public schools overflowed with enthusiastic, good-natured crowds, who applauded speeches assailing the war in Iraq, severe cutbacks in vital services at home, and the lack of health care.
In a stunning upset, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) won 38 percent of the vote and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards won 32 percent. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, widely viewed as the frontrunner, came in third with 18 percent. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri got only 11 percent and dropped out, appealing to his supporters to unite behind the ultimate Democratic nominee to defeat Bush.
The spirit of grassroots democracy was on display at the St. Charles Public Library in Madison County, about 35 miles south of Des Moines. Robert Bell, a grain farmer and chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party, surveyed the standing-room-only crowd.
“This is a bigger turnout than ever before by a long ways,” he told the World. “We had good candidates who worked hard to get their supporters out. The fact that it was hotly contested generated a lot of energy.”
Bell spoke of the congenial crowd munching cookies and sipping coffee as they talked politics. “These are our neighbors,” he said. “We respect each other. I think they will all stay on board and vote for the Democratic nominee in November.”
The Rev. Gil Dawes, a United Methodist minister, told the crowd he is backing Rep. Dennis Kucinich “because he has spoken out honestly against the war – against a tax cut that has gone to the wealthy and the Pentagon leaving the rest of us in a hole. It is time to put Iraq in the hands of the United Nations and move on.” Exits polls indicated that 70 percent of caucus participants oppose the war.
“We all know we have to get George W. Bush out of the White House,” Kelly Harlow, an Edwards organizer, said. “Edwards is the one who can beat Bush.”
Pharmacist Barry Hitt praised Dean. “He opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. He’s been targeted because he worries the Bush crowd. They know he hits Bush in his soft spot. He can defeat him.”
The caucus then broke into groups and it became clear that Edwards was the big winner, with Kerry close behind. Kucinich, Dean and Gephardt all fell below the 15 percent needed for “viability.” During the “realignment” process allowed under Iowa caucus rules, all or most of them joined the Edwards group. Edwards ultimately got 67 votes (one of which is committed to Kucinich), an absolute majority of the 109 who attended the caucus.
Similarly, 310 people packed Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines for the 73rd precinct caucus. Jessica Ireland, 22, an organizer for the Iowa Peace Network, led a 19-member Kucinich delegation. Kerry backers numbered 122, Edwards 97, and Dean 66. During realignment, Ireland persuaded 12 of the Kucinich backers to join Edwards’ group. Ireland was named as a county delegate.
At Kerry headquarters Chuck Shelabarger, captain of the 88th precinct, was exulting over his candidate’s surge. “I always thought John has the best message and the best chance of defeating Bush,” he said. He pointed out that Kerry is a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in contrast to “chicken hawk” Bush.
“Kerry served courageously in Vietnam and then came back and even more courageously stood up and spoke out against the war,” Shelabarger said. “How do we tell the mother of the last man who dies in Iraq that her son died for a mistake? The best answer is to bring them home alive. We can’t take another four years of George W. Bush’s radical agenda. As a veteran, I don’t like our soldiers dying over there for a war that could have been avoided.”
On Jan. 18 a capacity crowd jammed the United Steelworkers Local 310 hall for a Gephardt rally. Local 310 member John Campbell was fired up. “We will unite behind whoever is running against Bush,” he said when asked what the Steelworkers would do if someone other than Gephardt won the nomination.
“As an African-American, as a union member, as a human being, I cannot tolerate another four years of Bush. I know what its like to be hungry, to be needy and to be in a hard fight.” Campbell said. “You don’t give up until it’s over!”
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