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Household divided on Democrats

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

OSKALOOSA, Iowa — The Comfort family living room offers both a look at a politically divided family and a potential preview of tonight's Democratic presidential caucus.

Photos:Comfort family, caucus volunteers

Their snow-blanketed front yard boasts signs for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Democrats who are virtually tied as Iowans prepare to kick off the first voting of the 2008 election season.

"I've lately said no caucus talk at dinner," Keith Comfort said during a brief political respite watching college football on New Year's Day. "But Charlie and Martha still go at it."

Martha Comfort, a legal assistant in town, is working as a precinct captain for Mrs. Clinton. Her son, Charlie, a freshman at Oskaloosa High turning 15 tomorrow, is a volunteer for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Comfort, a banker, says Mr. Edwards is his candidate.

The family has lived in this southeastern Iowa town for two decades, but this is the first time they have been politically engaged.

Instead of arguing about who gets to take down the Christmas tree — no time for that task until after the caucus, they say — they have playful family fights about which of their candidates has the best shot tonight.

Charlie even teases he hangs up the phone on Clinton supporters who call the house, and Mrs. Comfort caught him looking through her "super secret" box of precinct material.

It's all in good fun, but lines are drawn in the sand when you ask whether any of them are persuadable — Nope.

Click the image to see & hear reporter Christina Bellantoni interviewing the family as they try to convince each other to switch sides. The story continues below the video.

"I'm for John Edwards, and that's the way it is," Mr. Comfort declares, prompting Mrs. Comfort to blurt out, "It's true!"

"After 27 years of marriage, I know he won't budge," she said.

But will there be hard feelings once the caucus results are announced and the candidates head to New Hampshire?

"You'll be crying on the street on Friday," Mrs. Comfort tells her son and husband.

Charlie's older brother, Mike, a graduate student who lives in Nebraska, is strongly considering supporting Mr. Obama in his state's primary.

Each family member has a different motivation for getting involved.

Charlie met Mr. Obama at an event on the Fourth of July and was sold. He ran home from a local coffee shop excited and ready to help.

Mrs. Comfort, 48, a former Republican who always voted but was never active, has been fed up and disgusted the past few years. She especially likes how Mrs. Clinton has "gone to bat for women's issues."

"Maybe under her leadership I'll earn 100 percent of what a man earns," she said. She also uses sex equality and boosting everyday Americans as her argument to try and convince Mr. Comfort, 49, to come around to her side.

"You and I have both been through raising two children, and day care was a problem," she said. "You and I both know how much it costs to send a kid to college. I know that Hillary cares about that and the working people of this country."

But Mr. Comfort thinks Mr. Edwards has the best agenda.

"I leave the phone calling to her and Charlie, but I like John Edwards from the last campaign," he said. "For me, it's all about the way he wants to build up the middle class."

The family also typifies the excitement and new energy fueling the Democratic contest — not one of them has ever caucused before.

Mrs. Comfort says it's not so unusual to go knocking on doors and find houses divided. A husband will be angry his wife put a Hillary sign in the front yard, or vice versa, she said.

Mr. Comfort admits "there's not a whole lot of difference between the three candidates," adding: "You might as well come over and support the winner, John Edwards."

But Charlie, who has spent nights and weekends for the past two months making dozens of phone calls to his neighbors to urge them to support Mr. Obama, predicts a different outcome.

"Barack is going to win because of what he stands for," Charlie said, his wide grin revealing a mouthful of braces.

Similar conversations are playing out all over Iowa as Democrats make their final decisions.

In Fairfield's 2nd Street Cafe yesterday morning, Tony Ellis overheard Roses Derise explaining that she will caucus for Mr. Edwards because she thinks he is mature and experienced.

"I'm sorry, can I ask you a question?" Mr. Ellis interrupted. "How do you explain his vote for the Iraq war?"

Mrs. Derise, a savvy caucusgoer who knows how to defend her candidate, was quick to shift gears and answer him.

"I have no problem with that; he has said it was a mistake," she replied.

"But how can you be sure he wouldn't be swayed again to make another mistake?" Mr. Ellis fired back.

"I don't feel any wishy-washiness. I think he went from one position to another as a growth thing," she said.

The O'Brien family in Davenport represents the full political spectrum.

Eileen O'Brien likes Mr. Edwards, and Mr. Obama is her second choice. But her husband, Kevin, is for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware — probably.

Her older daughters, who don't live in Iowa, are split between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. Kevin O'Brien Jr., 19, has spent "hundreds of hours" volunteering for Mr. Obama in Dubuque, and her 17-year-old son is on board too.

Tim O'Brien, 14, is too young to caucus, but he likes Mr. Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee.

Another indication of how divided the state remains — each of Iowa's three Democratic members of Congress endorsed a different front-runner.

The Comfort family plans to join forces once there is a nominee, and Charlie hopes two of his family's candidates unite as well — he favors an Obama-Clinton ticket.

Mrs. Comfort isn't so sure. She initially supported former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who now backs Mrs. Clinton and thinks those two would make a powerful 2008 team.

A split family isn't so strange for Mrs. Comfort — her father was a lifelong Democrat and her mother is a staunch Republican.

"During the election, we always heard about good old FDR. We just kept eating because it was great entertainment," she said.

The family beams when describing Charlie's dedication, despite the disagreement about his preferred candidate. He is a city council regular and puts his all into the caucus.

Mrs. Comfort joked that they all agree "if you would just put as much into your homework as you do with Barack ..."

Asked what he wants to do when he graduates from college, Charlie doesn't hesitate: "Run for president in the year 2038. I've been working on my campaign signs."