- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

DES MOINES, IOWA It says something about the good sense of Iowans that, after being bombarded ceaselessly for months by candidates, commercials and calls from telemarketers, they dispense with the actual presidential caucuses in a little more than an hour.
In 2,131 precincts across the state last night, political die-hards of both major parties braved subzero wind chills to pick a president in fire halls, school auditoriums and living rooms. All meetings started at 7 p.m. local time; most were completed by 8 p.m.
The meetings, for the most part, were low-key affairs that belie their importance to the nation. As former state Republican Party Chairman Steve Grubbs likes to tell Iowans, "The road to the White House begins in your neighborhood."
Chuck Austin's neighborhood is designated by the state GOP as "Des Moines 84," and the caucus was held at Perkins Elementary School. Mr. Austin, 68, has been a precinct chairman since 1976 and approached last night's caucus in such a laid-back manner that, hours before the event, he wasn't sure if it was to be held at the school or the Presbyterian church across the street.
"I'd better check with headquarters," he said yesterday morning.
A retired bakery manager, Mr. Austin said he likes to keep the meetings simple and let everyone be heard. Usually about 40 people attend. Last night's standard agenda consisted of a call to order, election of a temporary chairman and the vote to choose among the six Republican presidential candidates.
"I do use Robert's Rules of Order," Mr. Austin said. "That's the only way to run a business meeting."
Republicans voted by secret ballot, as is their custom; Democrats broke into groups supporting either Vice President Al Gore or former Sen. Bill Bradley.
While he didn't try to sway his caucus toward any one candidate last night, Mr. Austin admitted he was "hoping that ol' Stevie Forbes pulls it out."
"I can't let my personal preferences override the wishes of the caucus," Mr. Austin said. "I kind of like to keep it open, if there's anything anybody wants to say."
Over in Dubuque, a town of 65,000 on the Mississippi River, Patricia Hutchison was attending a caucus for social conservative Alan Keyes. It was her first caucus in years.
"Iowa has the best-educated people of any state in the country, which means we're the smartest state in the nation," Mrs. Hutchison said. "And we recognize a smart man."
Her friend Julia Krolick of Dubuque said their opposition to abortion was the main reason for supporting Mr. Keyes.
"It's being used way too much as a birth-control method," Miss Krolick said. "We need to get back to family values."
With their unique community aspect, the caucus turnout depends on a candidate's supporters persuading friends, relatives and neighbors to accompany them to the meeting. As the campaign commercials on television mercifully ended last night, many Iowans said they had paid little attention to the expensive media blitz.
"I don't really listen to them," said Rick Njos, 26, a photographer from Slater. "I'm persuaded more by a friend than anything. I don't really enjoy hearing one person say something bad about another. In my business, I try not to say a bad thing about another photographer."
The caucuses are just the first nonbinding step to decide who will represent the precinct at county conventions held by Democrats on March 25 and by Republicans on March 4. Democrats hold district conventions on May 6 and a state convention on June 17. The Republicans' state convention will be on June 9.
The 56 Democratic and 25 Republican delegates to the national conventions, where the parties' presidential nominees will be chosen, will not be picked until those state conventions long after most of the candidates have dropped out of the race.
Each party has more than 500,000 registered voters, and at most about 100,000 were expected to participate in caucuses last night. While the spinmeisters for the candidates will dissect what it all means for days, Iowans know their caucuses set a standard for the rest of the long campaign.
"It's in January, and we're in Iowa," said Ann Daugherty, the state Republican Party spokesman. "That's the test of the organizational strength of each candidate. You really have to motivate your people."

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