'Back room' politics comes into the parlor in Iowa

Marcia Nichols had the loudest voice in the room. She shouted. She argued. She complained. She bullied. She tried to run everything. Ms. Nichols was a ''caucus organizer'' for Walter Mondale here in Des Moines. She was tough. She was pushy. And she got the job done. But she didn't consider herself very popular.

''I'm the most hated person here tonight,'' she said with some resignation.

Ms. Nichols, who is one of those people known as a ''political activist,'' may have been unpopular with her foes. But she won the day.

When the caucus in Precinct 65 ended, Ms. Nichols had rallied 32 votes for Mr. Mondale, putting him on top. Mondale was awarded one of the delegates who will go from this precinct to the county convention in April. Another went to George McGovern, and the third delegate was uncommitted.

A caucus in action is nothing like the orderly procedure most people associate with voting. This is raw politics - where old-fashioned back-room maneuvering explodes right out where everybody can see it.

At a signal from the chair, each voter goes to a designated spot for the candidate of his choice. In this meeting, a candidate needed 12 voters to be ''viable,'' that is, to qualify for at least one delegate. Mondale and McGovern had enough. But Glenn had only 11, Jackson 6, Reubin Askew 1, Gary Hart 7, Alan Cranston 4.

That set off a scramble, with Mondale and McGovern workers each trying to woo the smaller groups. Ms. Nichols almost triumphed when she promised that if the Jackson people would come over to Mondale, they could send a delegate of their choice to the county convention.

The Glenn forces foiled that plan by talking the Jackson people into an alliance where a Jackson delegate would go officially uncommitted.

It was all a lot of fun for the 70 Democrats there, including Ms. Nichols, who now goes back to her much quieter job as an official in the state treasurer's office.

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