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Molly Clause's night at the caucus

An Iowa Democrat has 30 minutes to rustle up five more votes for her candidate.

(Page 3 of 3)

There was a moment of clamor and chaos as people sorted into groups in separate corners of the room. Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and John Edwards had clearly met the threshold for viability. A minute later, a roar went up from under a Bill Richardson sign as his supporters realized they were over the line; the sole Dodd supporter, a brawny man in a Kruseman Cement cap, had left his lonely spot and helped put them over the top.

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When Clause took a head count in the Biden corner, she realized they were just 12 – five short of viability. She implored Clinton's precinct captain, Judy Hensley, to spare a couple of her people, then went to the Obama camp in search of ambivalence. Nothing. Even her husband wouldn't budge.

"Tom, would you help us?" she asked him. He couldn't. The number of delegates each precinct sends to the county conventions is based on the size of each preference group. To leave, he told her, risked depriving Obama of a second delegate.

The preference groups have 30 minutes to find additional supporters. Those unable to meet viability must disband. As the minutes ticked with no change in the Biden head count, the supporters Clause was trying to hold together grew restless. Clinton backers, sensing the group's vulnerability, walked over to pitch their candidate.

As members of other rival camps moved in to scavenge, Clause at last relented. "Your choice," she told the other Biden supporters. "Go to the candidate you want."

They scattered, and when Clause met her husband's eyes through the standing-room-only crowd, he broke through to embrace her.

"Bringing her in," he said, gently steering her into the circle of Obama supporters. "Bringing her in."

"OK," she said, looking resigned. "Made my choice. Saved my marriage."

Doing the math

The caucus mathematician, a gray-haired grain and livestock farmer named John LaFratte, sat beside Mr. Ryner and inked the final tally onto a broad sheet of paper titled "Caucus Mathematics Worksheet and Reporting Form": 45 votes for Edwards, 26 for Obama, 24 for Richardson, and 21 for Clinton.

To divide the precinct's nine delegates among the candidates, Mr. LaFratte punched numbers into a calculator, using a mathematical formula supplied by the party that factors in the size of each preference group and the number of caucusgoers. Three delegates would go to Edwards and two each to Obama, Richardson, and Clinton.

"We tried," Mike Brenner, a sales manager who left Biden for Mr. Richardson after the breakup, said to Clause.

"Yes," she said. "We tried."

Clause rose on her tiptoes and peeled the "Biden for President '08" sign off the wall. "Still proud of him," she said, pressing it to her chest.

Then, at 8:30 p.m., Ryner adjourned the caucus, and Iowa's citizens, their duty done, streamed into the freezing night, under a sky full of stars.