Image: Mary Beth Reiff
Tom Curry  /  msnbc.com
Negotiating turned tough for Biden precinct captain Mary Beth Reiff.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/3/2008 11:34:08 PM ET 2008-01-04T04:34:08

Let's take an inside look at the deal-making and jockeying at one Democratic precinct caucus on Thursday.

Here’s how the Democrats caucused at West Des Moines precinct 115.

5:45 p.m.

Cathy Jury, the precinct caucus chair, is checking in a line of people straggling into the auditorium at the Indian Hills Junior High.

Each person signs the list of the candidate they’re supporting. The line is backed up way down the hallway and by 6:45 p.m. people waiting in the hall are staring to complain.

It's later revealed that 339 registered Democrats showed up to caucus here.

But when you add the children, it was more like 500 people crowded into that auditorium.

5:50 p.m.

Hillary Clinton volunteer Bailey DeReus, who just graduated from the University of Kansas, is checking names of supporters who haven’t shown up yet.

She’s using her cell phone to make last-minute reminder calls.

“I do think it is kind of bizarre thing for Iowa to have,” she says. “But I’ve been excited all day.”

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6:05 p.m.

Clinton precinct captain Dan Winegarden tries out his recruiting speech on me: “Competency does matter,” he tells me, part of the pitch he’ll deliver an hour later to the whole auditorium.

6:25 p.m.

Bill Dickens sits in the Joe Biden section, chatting with a woman next to him. They will later be joined by a few others.

“I am a dissenter to this whole process,” Dickens tells me. “I don’t think we should be doing this for at least six more months. Pushing this all into January is an abomination.”

He adds, “I really did not make the decision to stand up for Biden until yesterday – because of the Pakistan situation.”

But he derides the caucus rules that requires a candidate to have the support of 15 percent of the attendees in a precinct to win any delegates.

“It disfranchises people,” he says. Dickens adds that if Biden isn’t viable tonight in this precinct he may just get up and go home.

“You are allowed to leave?” asks visiting Dutch reporter Philippe Remarque, who writes for De Volkskrant.

“Of course! What are they going to do — force you to stay?” Dickens says to Remarque.

The Biden people are seated in the on the right side of the stage; the Barack Obama people in the middle section of the seating and the Clinton people up front. The Bill Richardson people are gathered in the seats to the left.

People keep entering the auditorium and migrating to their chosen candidate’s group.

Cathy Jury calls the caucus to order.

Winegarden starts addressing the crowd, making his appeal for Clinton.

With all the seats taken, people are sitting on the stage and on the floor.

A little girl with a red crayon colors a tulip in a coloring book; her wise parents planned ahead for plenty of boredom.

Winegarden is followed by James Flanagan making the pitch for John Edwards. “The only candidate who has never taken a dime from PACs or from lobbyists,” Flanagan tells them.

The spokesmen for Obama, Biden and Richardson are up next.

7:20 p.m.

After counting everyone in the room, Cathy Jury announces that with 339 people attending, a candidate will need 51 supporters in this precinct caucus to be eligible for any delegates.

Those below 51 are not “viable,” meaning their supporters will have to find another candidate to back.

Jury announces that the time for the first count has begun: Obama people go up on stage to be counted; Clinton people gather in the front and center of the auditorium seating.

The John Edwards supporters go out in the hall, as do the Richardson people.

7:25 p.m.

Obama precinct captain Anita Varme pleads with her troops to make the counting easier: “Is there any way you can get into rows?”

7:30 p.m.

The first tally shows that Clinton has 102 and Obama 103.

Video: Primer on the Iowa caucuses Edwards has 75, Richardson 35 and Biden only 21.

Now the wooing of the attendees who backed non-viable candidates begins in earnest.

The take-charge person for Richardson is volunteer Mary O’Connor, a painter from Grants, N.M., whose daughter Rachel works for Richardson as the state of New Mexico’s “anti-DWI czar.”

O’Connor has been in Iowa since Dec. 28 canvassing for Richardson.

“We need you guys! We need you guys so we can beat them!” Flanagan yells over to the Richardson supporters as the two groups eye each other in the hallway outside the auditorium.

By “them,” Flanagan means Clinton and Obama. “We’ll give you delegates to the county convention,” he promises.

But O’Connor takes command of the Richardson battalion.

“Stay put!” she shouts. And initially, the Richardson team does stay together.

7:40 p.m.

If Richardson can pick up 20 more people, he’ll get a delegate out of this precinct.

O’Connor goes to work, marching into the auditorium to appeal to the undecided contingent, a group of 12 people who haven’t figured out who they want to support.

O’Connor tells them how Richardson ordered her daughter to solve New Mexico’s DWI problem, and “get us off the top 10” in DWI deaths.

“This guy will do what it takes to get things done!” she tells them.

7:45 p.m.

Suddenly the Biden contingent is a very hot commodity. Obama, Clinton, Richardson and Edwards all want their votes. It may mean an extra delegate for Edwards, Clinton or Obama, if Team Biden moves as a group to another candidate.

An Obama supporter comes down from the stage to make his own pitch, telling them not to join Hillary Clinton’s supporters, chanting, “You can’t trust the Clintons, you can’t trust the Clintons!”

I ask him for his name, but he demurs: “I’ve been shot at enough.”

Vying with a Clinton supporter who is appealing to the Biden contingent, Flanagan makes his case: “Hillary is owned by the defense contractors; she’s a hawk.”

Obama supporter Robert Parks joins the fray, rebutting the lack-of-experience argument the Clinton team is using against Obama.

“Nobody has experience until he gets elected,” Parks tells them.

Meanwhile, Biden precinct captain Mary Beth Reiff is trying to woo some of the undecided and others from the Richardson team.

“We’re still working on them; this is the hard sell. I’ve never been precinct chair before. This is a new experience for me.”

8 p.m.

A frustrated Bill Dickens finally does get up and leave. “The bottom line for me is I’m going to go change my registration to independent.”

The Biden team begins to scatter, with some going to Clinton and others to Edwards and Obama.

8:10 p.m.

Mary Beth Reiff tells me, “I was trying to negotiate a deal with the Edwards people when we’d give them our people and they’d give us one delegate (to the county convention). But the deal fell through — and I’m going to cry.”

And then seeing the worried look on my face, she tells me, “I’m not really going to cry,” but a minute later she does have tears in her eyes. “When you really believe in a good person, it’s hard” to see him lose.

Suddenly at 8:30 it’s all over as Cathy Jury announces that Clinton had gotten 111 votes, Obama 115 and Edwards — drawing from the uncommitted and sub-viable Biden and Richardson teams — boosted his total to 109.

Based on this, Obama and Clinton each get three delegates to the Polk County Convention, while Edwards gets one.

“Do you believe how close it was?” says one lady to her friends as the crowd files out.

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