Something no one ever told me about caucuses is that they can be rather stinky. If turnout at the precinct is high, the able-bodied voters of Iowa -- often clad in long johns, flannels, sweaters and beefy winter coats; packed into small, overheated rooms in schools and municipal centers; engaged in heated debates about candidates -- are prone to sweat. A lot.
But Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush never broke a sweat as they coasted to victory, as expected, in the Democratic and Republican caucus votes Monday night in the first round of ballots counted in Decision 2000.
Gore's showing -- 66 percent to former Sen. Bill Bradley's 33 percent -- was heralded as a decisive ass-stomping, a testimony both to the Gore machine and a fairly limp effort by the former New York Knick.
Bush, with 41 percent, won solidly, too -- by 4 points more than the previous record achieved by a candidate in a heavily contested Iowa caucus. But his sails were somewhat de-winded by the strong showing of challenger Steve Forbes, with 30 percent, and the fact that the combined totals of Forbes and surprising bronze-medal winner Alan Keyes, with 14 percent, surpassed Bush's total.
With 9 percent, Gary Bauer finished fourth, beating Arizona Sen. John McCain, who got 5 percent without campaigning in the state. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch won an astoundingly pathetic 1 percent, and may well be the next to leave the race.
Arguing that a win is a win, a jubilant Bush nonetheless took the stage at the downtown Marriott after his victory was called and thanked his supporters for his first official win in his express train from the governor's mansion on Colorado Street in Austin, Texas, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"Seven months ago I came to Iowa on a plane dubbed 'great expectations,'" Bush said. "Tonight, Iowa has exceeded them. Tonight marks the beginning of the end of the Clinton era."
At Valley High School in West Des Moines, seven Democratic caucuses and two Republican ones brought out hundreds of voters from the relatively wealthy, highly educated suburban enclave.
Standing outside the GOP caucuses were three Bush supporters who Saturday flew in from Dallas on their own dime. Dan Branch, a lawyer; Barbara Harris, a homemaker; and Bill Ceverha, a political consultant, came in to share the love they feel for their governor, making "Get-Out-the-Vote" phone calls and distributing literature outside the precincts. All three have donated to Bush the maximum amount of cash allowable by law. Election laws allow them to spend $1,000 apiece on travel, which they all plan to do.
"We had a group that came up," said Branch. "Many of us are good friends with them [the Bushes] and therefore feel passionately about his campaign. A lot of people came up looking for things to do, since there's nothing to do in Texas to help the governor right now."
"And we wanted to be in Iowa in the winter," joked Ceverha.
Their plane tickets weren't spent in vain; the two Valley High Republican caucuses generally mirrored the statewide results.
In the school auditorium, 16-year precinct chairman Jim Davis opened the floors to two-minute speeches for candidates. Steve McCollough told the crowd of roughly 250 that his man, Bush, "would make an excellent president and I think he has the best chance of being elected." He met Bush at a rally, McCollough said. "It was really, really cool."
Forbes' impromptu representative, a 36-year-old computer installer named Brian Litscher, whipped out a Forbes mailer that heralded the publisher's plans to privatize Social Security. "I'm a geek, I like numbers, numbers mean something to me," Litscher said to the room. He calculated that a 15 percent return on a hypothetical investment would wield more than $4 million. "So if you want to be a millionaire, then you ought to vote for Steve Forbes!"
"The issue in America isn't abortion, it isn't taxes, it's morality," said Charles Janzen, a 51-year-old auditor who brought his two sons to the caucus. "We need to do what's right and you can do that by voting for Alan Keyes."
Saying that he was impressed with all of the candidates except for McCain, letter carrier Phil Bechtel, 39 and wearing a Rush Limbaugh T-shirt, spoke about Bauer's aggressive stance against China.
No one spoke for McCain or Hatch. The participants voted by secret ballot. Bush won 137 votes, Forbes 72, Keyes 31, McCain 23, Bauer 8 and Hatch 1.
Next door, in the school cafeteria, West Des Moines City Councilman Ted Ohmart led his GOP precinct in a similar exercise.
Again, no one spoke on behalf of McCain or Hatch. Nor did anyone stand for Forbes. "That is surprising," said Ohmart. Bush won 88 votes, Forbes 34, Keyes 17, McCain, 12, Bauer 6 and Hatch 1.
Who were the two people who voted for Hatch? The secret nature of the GOP caucuses didn't allow such a thing to be revealed. Keyes' supporters, on the other hand, were relatively large and in charge.
"I really like his moral stance," said Jason Greer, 23, a first-time voter who spoke for Keyes at Ohmart's caucus. "He is definitely a motivator."
The Democratic caucuses down the hall didn't represent what was going on elsewhere in the state. Bradley may have a big L plastered on his forehead, but at Valley High School he was a BMOC. Bradley supporters -- wearing blue "Bradley Buddy" stickers -- swamped the halls.
Other classrooms were similarly packed like sardine tins. The aromas of bad breath and sweat -- heated by the school's furnace -- made reporting in some of the precincts unbearable.
One caucus that only drew three people for the 1998 gubernatorial caucuses drew 171 people Monday night -- 99 of whom wanted Bradley in the White House. Perhaps appropriately, the caucus was so well-attended, it had to move from a classroom to the gym.
"My dad watched him play basketball," said David Isaacson, 18, a Valley High student whose government teacher required him to attend the caucus.
Added Nate Zittergruen, 17, another Bradley supporter, "My parents think he's really smart."
Both students asked me to put them in this story so as to please their teacher.
But despite the teenagers' affection for Bradley, and his excellent performance in the seven Valley High Democratic caucuses, it wasn't enough.
"Wow!" a way-psyched Gore exclaimed to the crowd at the Iowa state fairgrounds, thanking them for what he called the best contested caucus victory in history. "This experience has been extremely gratifying in what you taught me." Slamming Bradley, Bush and Forbes, Gore promised that he has "not begun to fight."
Bellowing that he "can't wait to get to New Hampshire," Gore got onto his airplane to head to New Hampshire as soon as possible.
As did Bush. As did Bradley. As did Forbes.
I can't blame them for moving on. Having spent night after cold, boring night here, I've begun to understand Iowa's crystal meth problem.
And as the caucus came to its foregone conclusion, chairman Davis acknowledged that Iowa's role in Decision 2000 pretty much ended as the votes were tallied.
"With the few electoral votes Iowa has," he said, "we know we're just not gonna make much of a difference beyond tonight."