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Democracy In Action 

No one knows who said it first, but variations of a single declaration were repeated throughout Saturday's Washington state Democratic caucuses in Spokane: "I'll vote for anyone -- I'd even take a chimp in a suit, for that matter -- if he's able to beat George Bush," as one man put it.

On that much, people seemed to agree. But as the nomination process continued, Democrats across the state turned out in record numbers to debate which candidate could give them back the White House. Many said they used their vote to lend further momentum to frontrunner Sen. John Kerry, while Gov. Howard Dean supporters hoped a good showing in Washington state might resuscitate his flagging campaign.

Still others said they were in effect voting for a particular issue, be it a candidate's stance on the war in Iraq, the Bush tax cut or legalization of gay marriage. In the end, nearly all of the two dozen Democrats interviewed ranked "electability" as the guiding factor in their decisions and pledged support to whomever eventually claims the party's nomination.

Saturday's results: Kerry, 49 percent of the vote; Dean, 30; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 8; Sen. John Edwards, 7; Gen. Wesley Clark, 3; Rev. Al Sharpton, less than 1.

The caucus format, more than a ballot-box primary, encourages discussion among party members. At Sacajawea Middle School on Spokane's South Hill, more than 300 people from 16 precincts -- three times the expected turnout -- crammed into the school's cafeteria and huddled around a table assigned to their particular precinct. Everyone then signed in, declared their candidate and began trying to sway more votes to their side.

Everyday people, from high school students to stay-at-home moms, stood up and made impassioned public speeches. At one table, Lanney Martin, 68, a retired social studies teacher, leaned into the circle of heads and spoke first:

"Dean has medical care for people under the age of 18," he said. "He's got the courage to do this.

"I also like his stand on the gay and lesbian issue, protecting the opportunity for them to enjoy the civil liberties that the Constitution guarantees to all people," Martin continued. "So, if we want a change, I think Dean is a very viable candidate."

A spirited round of applause, several heads nodded and then Walt Kelley, 57, a helicopter pilot, replied:

"We're trying to unseat a commander in chief while the country is at war, so we need somebody with military strength, someone who can stand up and say, 'I know what's going on with the military and this is what we should be doing,'" Kelley said, "Not somebody just to say, 'You're wrong.'

"If we can find a crack in Mr. Bush's armor, it will be somebody who can stand up in September and say, 'We are bleeding,'" he concluded, "and I think Mr. Kerry is that person."

More applause, someone shouted out that Kerry had voted for the war and the debate continued. Ron Baer, 38, an elementary teacher, said Kerry is too vanilla but Dean stands out. Later, Karen Lindholdt, 36, an environmental lawyer, said that as a senator, Kerry had established a visible voting record on the environment.

As the discussion bounced between only Kerry and Dean, Krista Benson, a 23-year-old office assistant, decided she couldn't hold her tongue any longer. Her voice rose above the din, color draining from her face.

"I don't want to have another middle-of-the-road candidate," she began. "We've been picking crappy, crappy Democratic candidates, and that's why we're losing elections.

"I don't want to vote for someone who doesn't support same-sex marriage and the only two candidates who support full marriage rights for same-sex couples are Kucinich and Sharpton," she said. "None of the other candidates support me."

Time was winding down. This was it: Someone read off the names from the sign-in sheet and people declared their choice once more. At stake were the precinct's six delegates, who will be sent to their legislative district caucus in April, where others will be chosen for the state convention and later the national convention.

In the end, however, no one changed position. For precinct 6117 -- covering parts of Sunset Hill -- there were 17 votes for Kerry, 10 for Dean and Benson stayed with Kucinich, although without 15 percent of the group, her vote didn't earn him a delegate. Based on percentages, Kerry received four of the precinct's six delegates, Dean the remaining two.

Afterward, a man leaned over to Benson and whispered consolingly, "I liked what you said."

Benson then pushed back her glasses, straightened her shoulder bag and started to walk out. "This is a place where I get to take a moral stand," she said, adding that in the general election, she'll probably support whomever becomes the Democratic nominee. But for today, "I'm not going to lie down for the republic."

Many people in the room seemed to share that feeling, that this was the last opportunity to highlight the candidates' differences before they uniting behind one against President Bush. Even the three candidates who finished at the bottom received some praise: Clark for his military record; Edwards for his youthful enthusiasm; Sharpton for pushing liberal policies.

Democrats used every minute -- including the time before and after the official voting -- to air their opinions.

There was David Randall, 54, who works at Eastern State Hospital. "I think John Kerry can win an election against Bush," he said. "He's a war hero and not a deserter. It's a no-brainer."

Janice Simchuk, a psychotherapist at Sacred Heart Hospital, said: "Dean has proven fiscal responsibility in what he has done in the state of Vermont," she said. "He's given people in Vermont health care and balanced their budget at the same time."

Jody Shapiro, 32, a school counselor at Lakeside Middle School in Idaho, added: "Keeping Kucinich in the race, even if he doesn't get the nomination, brings the conversation more to the left, more to issues."

Like many other Democrats, Mark Bowman, 54, a civics teacher at Mead High School, said he had come here less to support a particular candidate and more to figure out how to counter the Bush administration. Besides, it was reassuring to meet other like-minded people.

"A caucus is democracy at its most basic level," he said. "It's the most grassroots level where neighbors can meet neighbors."

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