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Race not over; next stop, Wyoming

/ Source: The New York Times

Being a Democrat in this state means that one’s status in political life is rarely in question and rarely that good. Republicans have a more than two-to-one edge in voter registration — or even 10 to 1 in some counties — and the Democrats, who are gearing up for their presidential caucuses on Saturday, usually get the leftovers.

Back in 1921, for example, when there was one lonely Democrat in the Wyoming House of Representatives, he would routinely announce where his caucus — of one — would meet, in case anyone else was interested. First the telephone booth, he would say, then the men’s room, then the bar on the corner.

“I think dilution would be the proper term,” said Dr. John Millin, an ophthalmologist who serves as the state chairman.

But this time, Democrats here say, it feels different. In contrast to all the dismally attended, demoralized Democratic presidential caucuses of past years, the outnumbered Democrats of Wyoming might actually have something to roar about.

As people here and around the nation digested the results of the voting on Tuesday, when Senator broke a string of victories by her rival for the nomination, Senator , the implication was clear: Race not over; next stop, Wyoming.

'Compressed political intensity'
Some Democrats here say they have never seen a political mood swing so overwhelming or so fast — from the status quo of irrelevance to full kiss-kiss campaign embrace, in nothing flat.

“I have never had a period of compressed political intensity like these last 48 hours,” Kathleen M. Karpan, a longtime Democratic activist and former Wyoming secretary of state, said Thursday. Ms. Karpan, who supports Mrs. Clinton, of New York, took a week off from her law practice to help with last minute details before Saturday.

Around the state, caucus locations are being moved from living rooms to meeting halls. Here in Laramie County, the most populous, Democrats reserved the Cheyenne Civic Center, which will seat up to 1,500 people for an event that in the past has drawn maybe 250.

“People are excited that it would actually matter,” said Margaret Whited, the party chairwoman in Park County in the state’s northwest corner. Ms. Whited said all the energy and attention swirling around the caucuses could help in the fight against her biggest enemy: apathy among Democrats who think their voices do not count.

If five times the regular number of 20 or so show up to caucus in Park County, Ms. Whited said, it will send a message that Democrats in her part of Wyoming should not be treated as aberrational freaks of nature.

“It will let people see,” she said, “that we are just regular human beings.”

Some local party leaders are playing it close to the vest in predicting turnout.

In Niobrara County north of here, where a dozen Democrats coming to the caucuses would indicate a big year in the past and four voters was tolerable, the county chairman, Brad Smyth, refused to be drawn into a guessing game about the numbers.

“I might give away our strength if I tell you,” Mr. Smyth said. (His bluff only goes so far, since there are just 101 registered Democrats in the county, according to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office.)

Nothing but hype?
Some Republicans counter that all the supposed intensity over the caucuses and their importance to the national process is nothing but hype.

“They’re trying to make it a big deal,” said Leroy Herdt, a retiree in Cheyenne who described himself as a conservative Republican. “The Demos are trying to get a grip on Wyoming and using this as part of their plan.”

Dr. Millin, the state Democratic chairman, said that getting a grip on Wyoming was probably a bit far-fetched, but that the party fully intended to capitalize on the excitement and to lasso into the fold as many new caucusgoers as possible. The state party has 18 national delegates to apportion — 12 to be decided, directly or indirectly, by the caucus votes on Saturday, and 6 more, including 5 superdelegates, who could go to the August convention in Denver uncommitted.

“We’ll make the pitch on Saturday that politics and political races aren’t going to end today, and then invite people to help out other candidates,” said Dr. Millin, who supports Mr. Obama, of Illinois. “We’ll have lists of all the people who participate, and that should make a good starting point for the future.”

Of course, Democrats do get elected to office in Wyoming. A tradition of Democratic governors in particular extends back to statehood in 1890, with more years under Democrats — including the current governor, Dave Freudenthal — than under Republicans, according to Phil Roberts, a professor of history at the .

And for about 70 years, until 1978, at least one member of the state’s delegation to Congress was a Democrat. (The Republican who broke the streak with his election to Congress that year, ushering in 30 years since of Republican supremacy? None other than Vice President , who earned some of his first political chits here.)

Another historical quirk that could resonate here on Saturday is that one of the worst electoral droughts for Democrats in state history coincided with the years when was president.

From 1994 to 2002, not a single statewide elected official or delegate to Congress was a Democrat. Dr. Roberts said that was partly a backlash to Democratic rule in Washington and partly because the party seemed to have written off Wyoming as a lost cause, a policy that he thinks has since changed.

What it means to be a Wyoming Democrat
What it means to even be a Wyoming Democrat is another question. In the state’s southern half, where Democrats are most numerous, the label is often not much more than a historical echo of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Union Pacific railroad dominated life and unionized workers joined the Democratic Party by the thousands.

The children and grandchildren of those workers might still be Democrats, scholars and party members say, but in many instances it is more because of culture and family tradition than ideology. Where an Obama or a Clinton message really fits in is hard to say in a state where a conservative — though often libertarian — point of view is shared across much of the spectrum.

“A Wyoming Democrat is a Vermont Republican,” said Muffy Moore, a former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

Other Democrats say their put-upon status only makes them stronger.

“We have a core of Democrats,” said Ms. Karpan, the former secretary of state, “who are Democrats not for convenience or any social advantage; they’re Democrats by conviction. We know what it’s like to be beaten down.”

Dr. Millin said he could even imagine a time and place in which a Democratic presidential candidate might actually carry his state in a general election.

“But even then it wouldn’t matter,” he said with a world-weary tone. “Because if they won in Wyoming, it would mean they would pretty much win everywhere.”