BOISE – Idaho Democrats and independents stepped out of the shadows Tuesday, flocking to meeting halls across the state to help choose a presidential nominee in a wave of political involvement that excluded only the Republicans – the party that’s long been in charge. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was the clear winner, taking Idaho by a large margin. A jubilant state Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark said he hopes that holds nationwide. “Our candidates are going to run better with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket than with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, there’s no question,” he said.
The Super Tuesday caucuses energized Democrats in a state where their party has long been viewed as small enough to be irrelevant.
“It’s extraordinary in that the Democrats really do feel like they have a role to play in their own nominating process for the first time in a long time,” said Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief. “I have not seen students as enthused about the process in a very long time.”
Obama won 15 of the state’s 18 delegates, with the remaining three going to Clinton. Obama’s visit to Idaho just three days before the Super Tuesday caucus clearly helped boost interest in the caucuses statewide, said Chuck Oxley, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Oxley said.
In Ada County alone, 8,290 lined up in frigid weather to file into the Qwest Arena, best known as the home of the Idaho Steelheads hockey team. The last Democratic presidential caucus in 2004 drew about 5,000 statewide.
Bonner County’s Democratic caucus filled the Panida Theater in Sandpoint to capacity; all observers except the media were asked to leave to make space in the 550-seat theater, where Obama supporters dominated.
“We are ready to take back the White House,” said an elated Shelley Landry, caucus organizer. Landry said they tried to get the fairgrounds for their caucus, but couldn’t because there’s a volleyball tournament.
Bonner County Commissioner Todd Crossett said he’s usually lonely as a Democrat in North Idaho. “I’m not lonely tonight,” he said.
In Kootenai County, more than 1,200 people packed into the North Idaho College gym, and the vote was overwhelmingly for Obama. Both Kootenai and Ada counties ran out of ballots midway through and had to send volunteers off to make more copies.
“Obama is the best thing that’s happened to the Democratic Party in Idaho and across the nation in many years,” said Coeur d’Alene optometrist Justin StormoGipson. “We need a leader who can inspire us.”
Kootenai County Democratic Party Chairwoman Bev Moss said it’s believed to be the heaviest Democratic caucus turnout in the county’s history.
To the north, Obama supporters also dominated the caucuses.
“I’m supporting Obama for change,” said 22-year-old Megan Lucht, who participated in her first caucus in Sandpoint. “He’s open-minded. We need something new.”
In Boise, Marcia Aitken, 60, said, “It’s wonderful to see Idaho this engaged, and to see the youth engaged.” She came out to support Obama, she said. “I believe dialogue is the only way to solve problems. He recognizes we need that.” As she spoke, a group of women wearing “Hillary” buttons passed by in the next line on their way into the arena.
But inside, Obama supporters clearly outnumbered all others.
Harriet Badesheim, 70, of Boise, said, “To hear him speak the other day was so invigorating to me.”
Even Republicans acknowledged the Obama phenomenon. Over at the state Capitol Annex, as Democrats left the building to go to the caucus, state Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I like listening to him. He knows how to fire up a crowd.”
Nonini said he didn’t feel left out as Democrats headed for the center of the excitement, the presidential primary race that’s dominating TV and national news.
“Not a bit – good for them,” he said. “Let them enjoy their one day. Let them enjoy today, because come November they’ll be crying in their beer.”
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