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Nationwide scramble of primaries and caucuses

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 | 10:18 p.m. CST; updated 10:59 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

She had a 13-hour window to vote in the Arizona presidential primary, but Mona Reese decided she couldn’t wait. She didn’t even brush her teeth or change out of her pajamas before leaving home.

She found herself in line before dawn at the fellowship hall of a Methodist church in Phoenix, excitedly waiting to cast a ballot for Sen. Barack Obama. Later she clutched her “I Voted Today” sticker as if it were a winning lottery ticket.

“I literally just woke up,” she said, apologizing for tousled hair and a makeup-free face. “I’m so sorry. It’s that important. To wake up at 5:45 in the morning to get down here and vote.”

The enthusiasm was not uncommon on a day like no other in American politics, a scramble of primaries and caucuses that went coast-to-coast and beyond, to the South Pacific island of American Samoa.

This Tuesday was more than Super. It was a day in which more people than ever before had a say in who would be left standing to wage the long campaign for the presidency.

And it produced democracy in some of its most dramatic forms.

In Alaska, battered by some of the most brutal cold of the winter, voters trudged through a foot of new snow in some places to get to caucuses at convention centers, middle schools, a radio station and at least one Chinese restaurant.

In lower Manhattan, voters in the New York primary elbowed their way past euphoric New York Giants fans, through tons of fluttering confetti, to get to polling places close to the Super Bowl victory parade.

In Virginia, voters were so eager they turned up at polling places across the state and deluged the Board of Elections with phone calls; and the Virginia primary isn’t for another week.

In Florida, election officials across the state fielded hundreds of phone calls from confused voters asking where they could vote Tuesday, apparently unaware that Florida’s presidential primary was last week.

It was the apex, so far, of an election season in which unusually wide-open party races, markedly increased voter interest and the most diverse set of finalists ever have all converged.

Or in the words of Jessica Pomey, a 29-year-old Obama voter from Oakland, Calif.: “Politics used to be something you didn’t talk about. Now it’s everywhere, in hair salons, everywhere. It’s part of the conversation.”

The geographic scale was unprecedented for a primary season and, in a way, bigger than most general elections, which are fought mostly in a few battleground states.

Voters found themselves in lines all over the country thinking about the intricate details of health care proposals, or the delicate state of Iraq, or which Republican matched up best against which Democrat, or the other way around.

“I’ve been voting since I was 18, but this vote is one of the more important ones because of the impact it will have on a national level,” said Tessica Mitchell, 23, who voted on an enclosed porch at a family farm in Meridian, Okla. “I just think it’s my responsibility to get out and vote.”

In what amounted to a national primary or maybe a national semifinal, 24 states held primaries or caucuses, the Republicans with 1,023 delegates at stake in 21 contests and the Democrats with 1,681 at stake in 22, plus American Samoa.

And the candidates themselves made for a remarkable tableau: The last standing included a woman, a black man, a Mormon, a one-time prisoner of war and a Baptist minister.

On the Democratic side, Obama competed with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. For the Republicans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did battle with Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

For remarkable scenes, it was also hard to beat U Lucky Dawg in Chicago, a hot dog joint that doubles as a touch-screen polling place.

Voters there were undeterred by both a technical glitch that left just one touch-screen machine working or the 6-foot frankfurter draped in an American flag that loomed nearby.

“I just feel we live in this country, we should exercise our rights, you know?” said David Turow, an accountant who has served as an election judge since he was 18. As voters left the restaurant, he called after them cheerily: “See you in November.”

In Fayetteville, N.Y., 54-year-old sales representative Walt Klingerman, a disappointed former supporter of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, went with McCain.

“I think he also has a better sense of what war is about than the other candidates,” he said. “I think he can make the tough decisions about Iraq, and I think he will know how to work with Congress.”

The open field, the first since 1952 in which the ballots were missing a sitting president or vice president, had voters plotting some mindbending hypothetical strategies.

In Grayslake, Ill., where voting took place in a restored barn, Steve Greenberg couldn’t decide between Obama and Clinton, so he went with McCain.

“If the Democrats lost, I’d be more comfortable with him,” he said.

For Jamelle Chadwick, a stay-at-home mother in Sandy, Utah, Romney’s Mormonism made the difference.

“The standards are important in leadership, like integrity, honesty and hard work,” she said, adding that Romney’s experience is another plus. “He knows how to solve problems.”

And others were conflicted mere minutes before they cast their ballots.

Outside a public school in Brooklyn, Carolyn Grant knew she wanted a Democrat to “clean up the mess” left by President Bush but could not decide which one. She sipped coffee and said her head ached. Ultimately, she went with Obama.

“Hillary is probably politics as usual,” she concluded. “I think Obama will do things differently.”

Daniel Schereck, a 33-year-old project manager discussing the election at a San Francisco playground named for Joe DiMaggio, said he opted for Clinton because his key issue was universal health insurance.

“I know where she stands on the issues,” he said. “I would happily have voted for Obama if I knew what he stood for other than change.”

Change had long since become the buzzword, used by candidates on both sides, for a contest to decide who should follow Bush’s eight years in office.

And it was not lost on Gina Nunez, who has never missed an election, primary or general, and found herself at that same Methodist church in Phoenix on Tuesday to vote before anyone else in her precinct, even before Mona Reese.

Nunez, an Obama supporter, is 43 years old and knows the routine. Still, she said she could not wait to vote this time.

“It just feels like something new’s going to happen,” she said. “Something different’s going to happen with whoever we get.”

Associated Press writers Pauline Arrillaga, Julianna Barbassa, Judi Boland, Dave Carpenter, Jennifer Dobner, Marcus Franklin, Martha Irvine, William Kates, Martha Mendoza and Steve Quinn contributed to this report.


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