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Hard sell, folksy mingling

North Dakota Democrats shopped in the political bazaar of the presidential preference caucuses Tuesday. In Fargo, where the Democrats' marketplace of ideas was a ballroom in the Ramada Plaza Suites, advocates touted their candidates as voters fil...

North Dakota Democrats shopped in the political bazaar of the presidential preference caucuses Tuesday.

In Fargo, where the Democrats' marketplace of ideas was a ballroom in the Ramada Plaza Suites, advocates touted their candidates as voters filed by to talk, listen and peruse campaign fliers before casting their ballots.

The competition for votes was intense, or at least loud. A constant din droned in the Crystal 3 ballroom as voters milled from table to table, listening to pitches from surrogates peddling their candidates' positions.

The most intense spin zone was a line of side-by-side tables for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Kerry.

Tables for the other candidates with a presence -- North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- were spaced farther apart.


At times, the stumpers had some competition from an Elvis impersonator performing live in the next room, the entertainment for a fund-raiser for the West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.

Distractions aside, the prevailing atmosphere during the caucuses was one of jovial rivalry.

"I think most people came here with their minds made up," said Lew Lubka, a Fargo Kucinich supporter. But, he added, "There's been some changes back and forth."

One voter who ended up changing her mind was Joan Wolff, who lives in Oxbow and teaches music at Madison Elementary School in Fargo.

Wolff spent two hours visiting each of the candidates' tables.

She arrived a Kerry supporter. She was leaning toward the Massachusetts senator because he appeared to have the most momentum and therefore the best chance of unseating President Bush.

She was impressed by Kerry's speech at a rally Sunday in Fargo. But that was before she met Chris Cooper, a Howard Dean organizer from Washington, D.C., who is campaigning in North Dakota.

"I was so impressed," Wolff said. "He was so up on all of the different issues and so concerned."


Wolff changed her mind, saying she planned to vote for Dean instead of Kerry -- voting with her heart. "I'm following someone who is not as electable, but who stands with the issues."

In random interviews with voters, however, many said they planned to vote for front-runner Kerry. For most, the key consideration was his growing viability as Bush's strongest challenger.

"I think he has the best chance of moving Mr. Bush out of the White House," Janice Larson of West Fargo said, explaining her vote for Kerry. "That's very important."

The give and take of the party caucuses was far different than the solitude of the voting booth in a primary election, the norm in North Dakota politics. Although not a classic caucus, where people gather to listen to speeches touting each candidate, the process for some was much more active than merely showing up and voting.

"This is very exciting," said 19-year-old Jennifer Sheets of Fargo, voting in her first presidential race. "It's all new."

Sheets is the reverse image of Wolff: Early on, Sheets was drawn to Dean. But after the Iowa caucuses, where Dean finished a disappointing third, she gravitated toward Kerry. She saw Kerry at his Fargo rally Sunday and came away convinced he was the best man.

"He sounds really legitimate and honest," she said. "Seeing him Sunday showed me that he was a people person."

Turnout in Fargo was steady throughout the afternoon, beginning at 2 p.m. when the caucuses opened. By mid afternoon, some organizers were worrying aloud that they might run out of ballots; 5,000 were printed for the nine districts in Fargo and surrounding areas.


By the time voting stopped at 7 p.m., 2,530 ballots had been cast in Fargo and Cass County, said Rebecca Knutson, the chairwoman for the Cass County Democratic-NPL Party. By comparison, in the 2000 Democratic presidential caucus, 2,300 voted statewide.

Democratic faithful are hoping they've minted some new party regulars lured by the greater attention the early caucuses have produced.

"It brings the people out just for this purpose, just the candidate selection," said Lubka, the Kucinich backer who has been active in the party for more than 30 years.

"It has energized a lot of these people who have been drawn in."

Wolff is hoping the party uses the caucus system in future presidential elections. She found the interactions stimulating and educational.

"It's really nice to have that one-on-one," she said. "I've spent a lot of time with individuals. This has been wonderful."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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