Inside a Caucus: "Let's Leave United!"

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Jim Bourg / Reuters

A caucus recording form for tallying votes is held at an Iowa caucus.

Politics may be something that divides people in other parts of the country. In South Des Moines, it brings neighbors together.

Twenty minutes before the 7 p.m. start of the Precinct 93 Democratic caucus near the airport, the big auditorium in Kurtz School was already divided into camps: John Edwards' and Barack Obama's supporters at the front corners; Hillary Clinton's in the center, and small enclaves of supporters for Joe Biden and Chris Dodd in the rear corners. Edwards had won this middle-class precinct four years ago, but at the outset it was far from clear that anyone had an edge among the 200 or so people who were there.

One thing, however, was for certain. They were friends when they had come here, and they would be when they left. "Damn it, when we leave here, let's leave united," Hillary Clinton supporter Vern Smith declared in one of the opening speeches, adding that divisiveness would only help the Republicans. "That's how they took us apart the last two times."

The first tallies showed that only Edwards (71), Clinton (58) and Obama (47) had more than the 29 supporters required to reach the 15% viability threshold to continue to the next round. Only one person was undecided. Biden's supporters, not ready to give up, tried to convince the supporters of the other bottom-tier candidates into regrouping with them. But the three leading contenders were not going to let that happen; all three groups started calling at the small knot of neighbors who had supported the remaining contenders. "We've got good sandwiches,"one man from the Clinton contingent shouted, evoking a big burst of laughter. "We've got free food!"

Then came the appeals. "Don't vote your fears; vote your aspirations," said one Obama supporter, who talked about how moved she had been when she read his autobiography. The Edwards contingent's designated speaker talked about the candidate's sincerity; Hillary's talked about taking care of Iraq vets. Slowly, the neighbors started drifting toward the corners, each one evoking a cheer as he or she did. By 7:45, it was all over: Edwards had 80, and therefore was allocated three delegates; Clinton had 59 and Obama 54, each netting two delegates.

Chatting and laughing, the neighbors went out into the chilly night. Except for the Clinton people. They still had lots of sandwiches to eat.