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Wash. Democrats Debate Electability vs. Inspiration

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Wash. Democrats Debate Electability vs. Inspiration

Election 2008

Wash. Democrats Debate Electability vs. Inspiration

Wash. Democrats Debate Electability vs. Inspiration

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The voter turnout for Democratic caucuses in Washington is record-breaking. The race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is extremely tight, and Washington offers the candidates the biggest delegate prize of the contests: 78 pledged delegates are at stake.


Let's turn now to NPR's Martin Kaste in Washington State. Martin, where are you?

MARTIN KASTE: Hi, Andrea. I'm in Kirkland, which is a suburb on the east of the Seattle metro area. I'm actually standing in the parking lot outside of an elementary school, because the caucuses - and we've been holding caucuses here in the state today - were so crowded in this gymnasium that the - large groups just spilled out.

And so people spent the last hour - half hour - debating the merits of Clinton versus Obama in pretty big circles standing in the middle of the parking lot here. And so they're breaking up now. They've just cast their votes inside of each precinct caucus. But it's - the turnout here has been easily record-breaking.

SEABROOK: I know the delegate process there in Washington State, Martin, is a little bit different than other places. And in fact this election cycle is pretty different. There are primaries and caucuses, right?

KASTE: Yeah, there always - for a long time in Washington State primary has been vying with the caucus system for which should matter more. The state legislature and the state government tends to push for the primary to mean something. But technically - not technically - legally it's these caucuses that really matter in terms of the delegates on the Democratic side. The Democratic Party today is determining its delegates via these caucus meetings.

Now, on the Republican side they split the difference. So the Republican caucuses, also meeting today, will determine half of their delegates, but the other remain - the remaining half of the Republican delegates will be allocated ten days from now in that very primary. So the primary means something only for the Republicans and there it only means 50 percent.

SEABROOK: And did you talk to voters today, Martin? What'd you hear?

KASTE: Oh, my gosh. I was - I spent the last hour here at this Democratic caucus, and the passionate interest here and the sort of tearful - the angry debates about electability versus inspiration. The Clinton and Obama people were just so revved up to try to win it for their person, people standing on tables and giving speeches. It felt a little bit like one of those sort of 19th century, you know, American democracy ideals you hear about in your civics class, you know. It was pretty inspiring really to watch.

SEABROOK: NPR's Martin Kaste at a caucus site in Washington State. Thanks very much, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. And let me turn back to you, Ron, NPR's Washington editor. We heard from Greg in Louisiana - Greg Allen - that Bill Clinton is out of the closet. I mean that in terms of the closet he's been stuffed into after not doing too well for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

RON ELVING: Yes, he became controversial there in January after really taking the lead for several days, pretty much being the spearhead for the campaign of his wife. That did not seem to be helping them going into South Carolina in particular. And that event did not go well for her. So after that, his profile was dramatically lowered.

But they have brought him back in selected areas, particularly where there's a large African-American population and where they're trying to damp down some of the enthusiasm for Barack Obama and counter that with the man who was very popular in that community when he was president, Bill Clinton.

SEABROOK: And of course in the run-up to Super Tuesday we saw surrogates - so-called surrogates - campaigning for Barack Obama, including Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, his wife, and others. Are we seeing them back on the campaign trail today? Do you know?

ELVING: It has not been that kind of big dramatic bringing out of the big guns for Barack. And on the Clinton side, it's been primarily a matter of key members of the family, Bill and daughter Chelsea.

SEABROOK: Okay. Thank you very much. NPR's senior editor Ron Elving.

ELVING: Thank you, Andrea.

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Washington Democrats Brace for Record Turnout

Washington Democrats Brace for Record Turnout

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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.