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Political Poker

Caucuses may be a better way to play the primary game.

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Saturday morning, I got together with 20 of my neighbors and talked politics in the humming fluorescence of a junior high cafeteria. Almost all of us were strangers to each other; all of us were first-time participants at the Washington State Democratic precinct caucus.

I live in the northern part of Kitsap County, Washington, outside Poulsbo (population: 7,005) across Puget Sound from Seattle. North Kitsap is a mix of small farms and very small towns. Many of us commute to Seattle by ferry; others work here. The rest of us tend our horses and gardens, make our daily runs to the grocery and to pick up the kids. My precinct is 441 Big Valley. It is mostly defined by our road, Big Valley, which winds up the Great Peninsula for five miles between Poulsbo and the Hood Canal Bridge. Many families have lived here for generations.

What happens at a caucus?

Any registered party member can come and, quite literally, stand up for a candidate. There we were, standing up, around a junior high lunch table. Big Valley is such a small precinct we only needed three standers to give a candidate a delegate.

Now, what really happens? It's noisy and hot and people are speaking their minds. Without beer or barbecue or any of the usual social lubricants. And it takes some gumption to deliver an impromptu speech in front of people you wave at over the fence. You stand a chance of making a fool of yourself or pissing someone off. Or making some friends.

At the end of the first tally, the battle for the uncommitted voters begins. Staunch supporters try to convince the undecided to commit to their candidate. A longshoreman articulated John Kerry's support for unions and health-care issues. One of Howard Dean's faithful held forth with vitriol on Kerry's vote authorizing Bush to wage war. I signed in uncommitted with three others and listened to the pitches. We started out with four uncommitteds, three unwavering Deaniacs, and 13 Kerry supporters.

Dean's people spoke of voting their hearts, even as they conceded points about Kerry's electability. Kerry supporters said if they were to vote their hearts, they too would go for Dean, but now was the time to find someone who could beat Bush. One undecided participant asked Kerry and Dean supporters: "Without using the word 'electable,' what is the one word that defines your candidate?" For Kerry, "statesmanship"; for Dean, "integrity." We ended up with three more Kerry delegates and one very passionate Dean delegate.

Caucus convener Remo Barr had just returned from Mexico. "Everyone I met down there supports what we're doing here today. I didn't wear my little bottle-cap," she said, speaking of a style of brooch produced by Mexican folk-artists. "But it has beads hanging from it, and in the center it has the word 'Bush' with a line drawn through it." That was the caucus theme: circle/slash Bush.

Of course, that's not why we do it. Everybody in the room is a registered anybody-but-Bush. But all the other days of the year, we're 20 people who live in relative isolation along a five-mile stretch of road. Saturday morning we were the Democrats from precinct 441 Big Valley. Someone at our table said, "This makes me feel like I live here, not just sleep here."

I've participated in both a primary and a caucus. Voting in a primary is like a game of solitaire, deliberate and private. Participating in a caucus is more like a noisy poker game, unpredictable and requiring at some point that you show your cards. We need more poker games. Sure the democratic process is sacred, but let it be rowdy enough to be interesting.

Elea Carey is a writer and native Memphian.

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