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Practicing politics at an Iowa caucus
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High school social studies teacher Lyle Otte runs the caucus, and welcomes the 100 or so people who have come to the meeting. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
More than 100 people crammed Decorah's City Council chambers Monday night to participate in the Iowa Democratic caucus. For this precinct, in a small northeastern Iowa college town, it was the best-attended caucus in recent memory. Mirroring the statewide trend Massachusetts Senator John Kerry quickly emerged as the evening's winner, with his band of supporters taking up nearly half of the room. Howard Dean finished in second place, and Dennis Kucinich came in third.

Decorah, Iowa — People stream into the wood-paneled city council room shortly after 6 p.m. Karen Mikesh is one of the early arrivers. She carries an armful of yellow Dick Gephardt posters.

Mikesh voted for Gephardt back in 1988, and says he has the experience it takes to the run the country. Plus, Mikesh adds she very concerned about prescription drug prices, and believes Gephardt can do something to help seniors on fixed incomes like herself.

By the time Mikesh finishes hanging her signs, the crowd has taken over. Rows of metal folding chairs snake across the room and local firefighters help take down a removable wall.

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Image Gephardt supporter

Sally Schultz sits near the back. Schultz wears a pink cable knit sweater and her eyes scan the crowd.

"This is my mailman ahead of me. These two women go to my church," says Schultz. "This woman posed for my art class at Luther 10 years ago. And this woman works at the dress shop downtown and she knows me by name. "

Schultz says she's leaning towards former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, but she's willing to be swayed. She says she wants a president who will promote universal health insurance. She's also anxious for a candidate who will attract new faces to the Democratic Party.

High school social studies teacher Lyle Otte serves as the master of ceremonies. He begins by welcoming the throng of caucus-goers.

"We've lived in Decorah since 1982, and this is clearly the biggest Decorah One caucus we've ever seen," says Otte, as the crowd erupts in a cheer. "Thank you for coming."

Moments later, the crowd scatters.

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Image Dean supporter

Supporters of John Kerry stretch along a side of the room decorated with posters, and red, white and blue streamers. They're the largest group here. The Howard Dean backers crowd another corner. Fans of Dennis Kucinich get a boost, when the smattering of John Edwards supporters decide to merge with them.

There wasn't a lot of debate on the issues at this caucus. Most people came with their minds made up.

But not Nancy Sojka. She was one of the few undecided voters.

"I guess my question is who's electable, and I'm not certain who that is," she says.

She's courted by the different candidate groups, and finally makes the choice to team up with Kerry's supporters.

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Image Undecided goes to Kerry

Abby Evinger also had trouble choosing a candidate. She's a baker at a local tearoom, and voted Republican in the last presidential election. She spends some time visiting with Dean people. But when it comes time to make an actual decision, Evinger joins the Kucinich camp.

"He's who I wanted to vote for," says Evinger. "I think he's a great guy. And even if he doesn't make it, I would like to see other people take him seriously and his ideas seriously, and have more people say, 'Oh wow, people are interested in what he's standing for,' and maybe get that incorporated into the bigger names."

She helps Kucinich gain three delegates for the Winnesheik County caucus in March. John Kerry scores six delegates, the largest number. And four delegates will go on for Howard Dean.

But the biggest surprise of the night is the lack of support for Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.

Karen Mikesh says her signs went to waste.

"There were four of us in all and that's not viable, so we ended up going with Kerry," says Mikesh.

Mikesh says she's disappointed, and even a bit dumbfounded, that her candidate couldn't muster enough support for a single delegate. But she shrugs and says, "That's politics."

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