Iowa Caucuses Do or Die for Some Democrats

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This is what it sounds like in the land of the frontrunners: Barack Obama, in Des Moines, talking about how nearly a year after he declared his candidacy, his supporters have vaulted him into the thick of the race.

"Ten months later we stand on the brink of doing something very, very special right here in Iowa."

Obama is feeling the pressure in a tight race against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. A poll in the Des Moines Register shows Barack Obama opening up a lead over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Other polls suggest a tight three-way race. But in a small town an hour south of Des Moines, another Democrat is feeling the pressure as well.

Democratic governor of Arizona, Bill Richardson, arrives at the Smokey Row Coffee House in Oskaloosa, Mahaska County, wearing a sport coat and tie, khakis and snow boots.

Richardson says among the Democratic candidates, he has the strongest plan to get troops out of Iraq. Then he admits the reality: he's not trying to win in Iowa. He just wants to finish third or at least a strong fourth — enough to get in the mix in New Hampshire and remain in the race for at least a few more weeks.

"I want to get to the west and February 5, when you have Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and California: states where I think we can do well," Richardson says.

For candidates like Richardson, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, tomorrow night's caucus is about survival. The decisions Iowa voters make will help shape the race for the presidential nominations among Democrats and Republicans, and there are more than the top three candidates hoping for a good performance.

As one of the candidates with lower poll numbers, Richardson's best hope for doing well in the caucuses may be winning over people like Tony Ross. Ross works at a lighting company in Oskaloosa and is thinking carefully about his decision. Ross tells Richardson he's worried about Hillary Clinton getting the nomination because he thinks she may lose to a Republican.

"So my biggest fear going to caucus for Richardson is that I would drain support from someone else," Ross says.

Richardson has no easy answer. He says that if he gets the nomination, he could beat a Republican.

Afterwards, when asked if he plans to caucus for Richardson, Ross says he is unsure. Richardson is hands down his favorite, he says. Still, Ross does not know if Richardson will have the resources to stay in the race in the long term.

"I'm afraid if I throw my support to him and he does not get enough bounce out of Iowa, it drains support from Edwards and Obama, and Mrs. Clinton comes out as the eventual nominee. That just worries me," Ross says.

Nearby, voter Dianne Van Gorp says she's leaning towards Richardson because she is impressed by his record as a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and now governor of New Mexico.

"I thought those are all good things," she said.

When asked why Richardson would keep going when his poll numbers are not as strong as other candidates, Van Gorp says she too has wondered about this fact.

"They must believe in themselves and their story. And, once they get started they don't know how to quit."

But many of the candidates know the time may come when they have no choice.

Caucus Calculus: A Guide to Iowa

We keep hearing how important the "Iowa caucuses" are in determining both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. But do we really know what a caucus is? And why Iowa?

I visited the Iowa Historical Society building in Des Moines this month with NPR Video Producer John Poole. We toured its caucus exhibit and came back with a video narration on both the history of Iowa and what takes place in a caucus. (Watch the results at left.)

Caucuses are like a neighborhood party that last for hours. In Iowa, they begin at 7 p.m. (Central) sharp. They take place in a church or a gymnasium or a school or in someone's living room. You're there with your neighbors. You discuss issues, such as Iraq or ethanol or Social Security. And you also discuss candidates.

Unlike a primary — where your vote is private — in a caucus, you declare your support for a candidate in plain view of everyone around you. Candidate Smith's supporters go to this corner of the room, candidate Jones' that corner, and so on. If no candidate at a particular caucus site receives the support of 15 percent of the attendees, his or her supporters need to form a coalition with another candidate's supporters to reach the vaunted 15 percent threshold. Otherwise, the candidate ends up with no support at all.

It's a seemingly complicated process worthy of a rocket scientist. But the results and how they are interpreted are not complicated.

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He writes the weekly Political Junkie column on npr.org.

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