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Raucous Caucus

February 1: I email Barack Obama's Colorado campaign site, asking for information on which caucus I should attend. Although I write a syndicated column that often deals with presidential politics, I’ve never been to a caucus, or for that matter participated in a political campaign. And my lifetime financial contributions to politicians consist of writing a $50 check to John Kerry in the summer of 2004.

But I’ve taken a liking to Obama, and have decided I should overcome my natural inertia and at least go to the caucus. I originally supported John Edwards, and my enthusiasm for Obama is still rather tepid. I also find the demonization of Hillary Clinton extremely annoying, to the point where I’m sometimes almost tempted to support her instead. Still, Obama’s early opposition to the war tips the scales in his favor. It’s true the prospect of spending a couple of hours in an elementary school gym--possibly being forced to listen to various lunatics ranting about the 9/11 conspiracy or how we should vote for Ralph Nader--fills me with dread. But I’m willing to take that chance.

February 4: I receive a package from Obama For America. I assume it’s just campaign literature so I don’t open it until the next morning.

February 5, 8 a.m.: “Dear Paul Campos: As a Precinct Captain you will be playing a crucial role at tonight’s caucus. Your training has prepared you for the most common issues that you are likely to encounter, but you can call this number if you run into any unexpected problems.” This would seem to merit a phone call. I leave a voice message. Precinct Captain? That sounds like it requires knowing something about what’s supposed to happen tonight. Obviously there’s been a serious mistake. Please call back.

9 a.m.: No call yet from the Obama triage center. I decide to call a woman identified in the materials as my fellow Precinct Captain. Jill gets back to me within 20 minutes, and to my enormous relief she sounds hyper-competent. She’s been training for this for weeks. All I need to do is show up and she’ll tell me what to do. Awesome.

4 p.m.: For the first time it occurs to me that my ex-wife will probably be at the caucus. I hope she doesn’t bring her boyfriend. I suddenly picture an evening that’s a cross between Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Plus, I know she was supporting Richardson. Will a potential Obama vote be lost because of my presence? For a moment I flirt with the idea of calling Jill and telling her that she’ll be on her own.

5:45 p.m.: I show up at the elementary school where our precinct, along with a half-dozen others, is scheduled to caucus. The caucus doesn’t begin until 7:00 p.m., but already a small line is forming at the registration desk, manned by four harried volunteers. I soon find Jill, who is in the midst of organizing everything with the cool panache of an emergency room nurse (which in fact she is). She hands me stickers, signs, and campaign literature, then directs me to a local Democratic Party official. I half-listen to a bunch of typically legalistic nonsense about what sort of campaigning is and isn’t permitted inside versus outside the building, then wander off to our precinct’s corner inside the gym.

6:30 p.m.: The gym is already getting crowded. Jill tells me that the line to register is now five persons across and stretching all the way down the hall and out the door. “Last year we had 10 people total,” somebody says. I hand out stickers to anyone who looks approachable. I talk about Iraq to anyone not wearing a Hillary button. A woman tells me she’s undecided, and that she would like to know more about Obama’s health plan. I don’t really know anything about this, so in the grand tradition of my legal profession, I start making up some incoherent story about how his plan is both universal and voluntary, before I manage to flag down Jill, who knows this stuff inside and out.

6:45 p.m.: Three middle-aged Hillary supporters are talking about Ann Coulter. “It’s sad that someone like her went to Yale Law School,” one of them says. “She actually went to Michigan,” I tell her. She gives me an annoyed glance, notices my Obama gear, and replies that she’s quite sure Coulter went to Yale. “I went to Michigan and she was in my class,” I respond. “You’re wrong,” she says flatly. I walk away speechless. I’m beginning to dislike Hillary more by the minute.

7:00 p.m.: Chaos reigns. There must be close to 1,000 people in the gym, and there are still hundreds waiting to get in. The party has run out of registration cards, and supposedly you can’t vote if you don’t register for the caucus. I tell people to just write the relevant information on a piece of paper and hand it to me. “Are you sure that’s legal?” a man asks. “I’m a law professor, and I can assure you it is,” I tell him. Half that statement is actually true.

7:15 p.m.: We have to be out of the building by 9:00 p.m. so the organizers try to start the caucuses, even though people are still trying to get in. I notice that in a sea of hundreds of faces I can’t find a single African American. Then I suddenly notice my ex. She’s brought our daughter, who is an Obama fanatic. I work my way over to them. She’s still undecided. She likes Obama, but doesn’t he favor a two-state solution in the Middle East? I grimace involuntarily, and restrain myself from asking if everything always has to come down to whether it’s Good For The Jews. I make my pitch, leaning heavily on Hillary’s war vote. My ex teaches at a college where many of the kids are minorities from working class backgrounds who have helped pay for school by joining the Reserves. More and more of them are ending up in Iraq.

7:45 p.m.: Our precinct's caucus finally begins. More than 100 people have shown up (the caucus organizers were expecting 30), and our caucus chair asks for a show of hands for each candidate. Obama gets 96 votes, Hillary receives 34, Edwards gets four, and Kucinich one. Three people declare themselves uncommitted. The chair then announces that we have two viable candidates (the caucus rules require a candidate to get at least 15 percent of the vote to remain viable), and asks if anyone would like to speak in support of either one of them. I walk up to the podium and give a rather lame two-minute speech. I say nice things about Hillary, but then insist that Obama will actually end the war. It would probably come across better if I had more faith in what I’m saying.

8:15 p.m.: Our caucus chair apparently intends to allow everyone who wants to speak to get a chance to do so. Several people repeat points that have been made before. Then my ex-wife steps forward to the podium. She gives a genuinely moving speech for Obama about what it’s like to teach students who are the first people in their families to go to college. It’s by far the best speech of the evening.

8:30 p.m.: Finally, we take the actual vote. Hillary picks up four votes, while Obama remains at 96 and four remain uncommitted. I phone in the results to Obama headquarters, adding to the 79,344 caucusgoers who cast their lot with Obama and contributing 0.12 percent to Obama's two-to-one victory over Clinton. I say goodbye to Jill, my ex-wife, and my daughter, and drive home to discover that Hillary has won half of the national delegates on Super Tuesday. What’s with all these middle-aged white women anyway? Of course, if I knew the answer to that question, I’d probably still be married.

Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard.

By Paul Campos