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Variety of issues drive Iowans to caucuses
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Bernice Branstead lives on a farm outside the small town of Northwood, Iowa. She's a Dick Gephardt supporter but has no plans to leave her house on caucus night. Branstead says she's most concerned about the plight of small farmers and the war in Iraq. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
On Monday, Iowa Democrats will meet in close to 2,000 precinct caucuses around the state. It's the first step in choosing a Democratic nominee to challenge President George W. Bush this fall. Because Iowa gets to go first, some political observers say the views of Iowa residents play a disproportionate role in choosing a candidate for president. But the issues Iowans are concerned about --the war in Iraq, jobs, and education-- are the same ones on the minds of many Minnesotans and other Americans.

Northwood, Iowa. — Northwood, Iowa is a tiny town of around 2,000 just south of the Minnesota border. It's a working class community, filled with blocks of neatly cared for homes.

On Main Street, Sue's Corner Post Cafe is a local institution. On this morning, farmers in seed caps sip coffee, while clusters of gray haired women enjoy plates of eggs and hash browns.

Toward the back of the restaurant is 85-year-old Bernice Branstead. She wears a maroon sweat suit, and a silver angel is pinned to the front of her blue cap. Branstead's a life-long farmer and a devout Democrat. While she says she's rooting for Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, she has no plans to leave her house on caucus night.

"They're all good men," she explains. "They're all just not good for Iowa. You know, small farmers and things like that."

Besides farming, Branstead says she's worried about the situation in Iraq.

"Well, a lot of our boys have been sent over there and that worries me," says Branstead. "The last time we had a war over there I had a son and three grandsons in it. This time I just have one grandson in it. It shouldn't have ever happened."

Just behind Branstead, Marge, who declined to give her last name, is finishing up her meal. She's in town from Boon County, not far from Ames.

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Image Christine Stolz

"I like Howard Dean, I like John Kerry and I like John Edwards, but I don't know which one I'll decided on yet," says Marge.

She says she'll be happy if any of the three eventually gain the Democratic nomination. But when it comes to issues Marge is much more decisive.

"I would really like to see things like Enron never happen again," says Marge. "I really don't care for the war with Iraq. I want those boys home. Medicare in Iowa is a big issue."

Marge is similar to thousands of other Iowans who are having difficulty this season picking a candidate. While she's opposed to the current administration and is well aware of the issues, she just can't decide.

Iowa State Political Science Professor Bob Lowry says that has to do with the number of Democratic contenders. There are eight vying for the nomination, and among the top four, the gap is narrowing. Lowry says because of that, he expects turnout for this year's caucuses will be heavier than in the past.

"The stronger people feel the more likely they are to take the trouble to show up," explains Lowry. "Whether you're looking at primary voters versus general election voters or caucus-goers. I don't know if you want to call them extremist or strident, but they're the ones with the stronger views, and that's quite standard."

Lowry says concerns over the economy, the war with Iraq, education, and health care have galvanized Iowans, just as they have most of the country.

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Image Patrick McDermott

In New Hampton, in rural Chickesaw County, Democrat Christine Stolz pumps gas into her daughter's car. She believes a handful of candidates represent her views.

"I'm really fond of three candidates," says Stolz. "I like Howard Dean, I like Dick Gephardt and I like John Kerry."

Stolz is a teacher and she says she doesn't like President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. She also worries about keeping young people in Iowa, where the general population is getting older. Stolz says she definitely plans to attend her caucus, but she's just not sure which candidate she'll support.

Across town, signs promoting North Carolina Sen. John Edwards withstand gusty winds outside of Tom's Restaurant. Owner and manager Patrick McDermott says the issue on his mind is jobs.

"We've lost an industry here in the last two or three years with Sara Lee which was our biggest employer," explains McDermott. "They've replaced it now. There were a lot of people displaced. I think they've shifted around, but when you had 900 or 1000 people working and now you've got basically 200 people working in that same factory."

McDermott says he wants a candidate who will help communities like New Hampton survive. He says he likes John Edwards, but he also likes John Kerry and Howard Dean. McDermott says he'll make his decision before he enters his local precinct on Monday night, but he says it won't be easy.

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