Washington Democrats Brace for Record Turnout

In Washington state, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination went from being nearly invisible to frenetic overnight.

Washington, along with Nebraska and Louisiana, will hold the next Democratic voting contests this Saturday. The race between New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is extremely tight, and Washington offers the candidates the biggest delegate prize of the contests: 78 pledged delegates are at stake.

Now, the Clinton and Obama campaigns are scrambling to master Washington's caucus system, which few people expected to be a factor months ago.

Clinton staffer Chris Campbell is handing out fliers by the fistful to supporters. But these people want more: They tell him that if they're going to face down the Obama movement in Seattle's suburbs, they need more lawn signs and buttons.

Campbell is one of 22 staffers who parachuted into the state less than a week ago. Before that, the effort was all-volunteer. The Clinton campaign didn't even have an office in the state. Now that the candidates have emerged from Super Tuesday neck-and-neck, Washington has taken on an unaccustomed importance.

Jim Kainber is a veteran Democratic organizer working with Clinton in Washington.

"This changes everything," he says. "We are in a new dynamic, so we are just doing our best to prepare ourselves for it. I doubt we will be fully prepared in all areas."

Both campaigns are scrambling to teach supporters the mechanics of the roughly 7,000 precinct caucuses that will be held Saturday afternoon. It is at those local meetings, in schools and church basements, where the party will hold a vote on how to divvy up the state's delegates.

The Clinton supporters are standing in a circle after their training session, practicing the speeches they might give at the caucus to try to sway people over to their candidate. The trainer tells them not to go negative, but the women here — and most of them are women — are genuinely angry about Obama's success.

After the meeting, two women vent their frustration over what they see as subtle sexism in this race. Washington is used to having women in high places — the state's two U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, have already endorsed Clinton. But the governor, Christine Gregoire, hasn't picked her candidate yet.

Obama has plenty of his own women supporters, especially in Seattle, where younger women are planning to caucus for him in big numbers.

"What I really like about him is that he doesn't just say he is going to change things for us. He says he is going to help us change things for ourselves," says voter Jennifer Lao.

Lao says she was never very active in politics before; now she's sitting here at an Obama caucus training session in a public library basement, learning how to be a precinct captain. Obama's supporters skew so young that the trainer worries some of the teens and 20-somethings might wander into the caucus meetings too late and get shut out because they overslept.

Obama has been ahead in the polls and has been raising more money by 2-to-1. If he dominates the caucuses, the fight for Washington might not be over this weekend.

Washington state is also holding a nonbinding primary vote 10 days later, on Feb. 19. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed is a big proponent of the primary because more people participate. He says that even though it's nonbinding, the national media will pay attention.

"When the people speak, I think your editors are going to respond and see what the people think about these presidential candidates," Reed says.

There's no doubt that the delegates will be allocated by the caucuses this Saturday, where party officials expect to double the old record of about 100,000 participants. Even so, if the national delegate count stays as tight as it is, one of the campaigns may be tempted to show a preference for those primary results.

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