– Molly Clause, an office assistant with a swoop of salt-and-pepper hair and a good-natured laugh, wrestled for months over which Democrat to caucus for Thursday night.
Republican caucusgoers here have it easy. It's one person, one vote, usually taken by secret ballot. But for Democrats, particularly those supporting underdog candidates, the caucus is a public crucible, a test of stamina and persuasion that unfolds in front of friends and neighbors and can leave participants exultant or crestfallen.
Senator Biden of Delaware had been polling at just 4 or 5 percent in recent polls in Iowa. But to have her support for him count under the byzantine rules of the state's Democratic Party, Ms. Clause knew she'd need to persuade at least 15 percent of the people in her precinct to back him.
If Biden failed to meet this test of "viability," she would face a stark choice: abandon him for a candidate with more than 15 percent support or leave the caucus.
"I'm getting scared," she said at her home in farm country west of Des Moines Wednesday night, as she thought about the next evening. "I can do it when it's just me. But trying to get others to join me, that is different."
She turned toward the logs crackling in the fireplace and sighed. "We'll see what tomorrow brings."
'I want skill'
Raised by farmers in southeast Iowa, Clause, who works for the state, had long ago decided to judge the candidates on their ability to restore America's standing in the world. She had worked as an Army nurse during the conflict in Vietnam, but scolded herself afterward for not taking more time to understand the war's moral dimensions.
She worried America was on a similar path in Iraq and was fed up with what she saw as the Bush administration's lack of credibility. Vowing to do her research this time, Clause drove through summer blaze and winter ice to see Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and Christopher Dodd. She compared notes with friends at Christmas parties and church coffees. She mulled over her list of favorites with her husband, Tom Clause, an ardent Obama supporter.
In her many years of caucusgoing, she says, no decision had been this difficult – not just because of what she sees as the strength of Democratic field, but because of what she believes is at stake for the country.
"I don't view this as a choice between experience and change," Clause, who is a grandmother, recalls telling herself. "I want skill."
In the end, she decided that Biden, the tough-minded, internationally seasoned chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had the right stuff.
She meets her candidate
On New Year's Day, Clause fastened a "Biden for President '08" button to her cap and drove to a Biden campaign stop at a snow-flecked county building in Indianola.
"I like the hat, kid, I like the hat," the senator said, noticing the button as he strode into the room and reaching to shake her hand. Clause couldn't stop smiling.
"Folks, this race is in your hands," Biden, in a crisp blazer and white shirt, boomed to a conference room of supporters, on a day temperatures never made it out of the teens. "On caucus night, if you stand up for Joe Biden, you're going to be surprised how many people stand next to you."
He discussed the growing threat of Pakistan and spoke of meetings with foreign leaders. Clause walked away more convinced than ever of her choice. "He hit on all the things I care about," she said.
The Biden campaign asked her to volunteer as a "precinct co-captain." She spent the next two nights on the phone in her home office, urging friends to caucus for the senator.
Quest for five more votes
Patterson is a small town that juts out from the corn fields in Madison County, famous for the novel inspired by its covered bridges. The town has a weather-lashed one-room community building, and it had been designated one of the 1,781 caucus sites across Iowa.
A little after 6 p.m. Thursday, Clause parked her Jeep Liberty on the snowy road outside and burst through the door with a Biden sign and a wicker basket of Chicken McNuggets she had picked up on the way from work.
"Dan, have you had dinner?" she asked one man, as she bobbed through the growing crowd with nuggets and sweet-and-sour sauce to woo the undecided.
"Consider Joe Biden," she pleaded. "Consider Joe Biden."
By 7 p.m., 116 caucusgoers had jammed into the room – any US citizen and Iowa resident who turns 18 by the general election and registers as a Democrat can take part. Someone had already plugged in a coffee urn. Others had covered a row of tables with plates of home-baked cookies.
The precinct chair, a farmer named Daniel Ryner, called the caucus to order and announced that given the turnout, candidate preference groups would need at least 17 people to be viable. Clause, in the same cap with the pin that Biden had noticed two days earlier, winced and shook her head.
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.
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.