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Contention, confusion common at Missouri Republican caucuses

Saturday, March 17, 2012 | 7:43 p.m. CDT; updated 10:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 17, 2012

TOWN AND COUNTRY — Contention and confusion marred various Republican caucuses in Missouri on Saturday, and one meeting was abruptly shut down, as impassioned supporters of Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battled for an edge in the state's complicated delegate selection process.

A caucus at a school near St. Louis where roughly 2,500 Republicans had gathered was adjourned before a vote could take place because it got so rowdy that extra police were summoned and two people were arrested for trespassing.

Elsewhere, political tensions and divisions led to recounts not only on votes over which candidates should be supported but also which people should preside over the caucuses.

"It looks like a chaotic day around Missouri," said former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney campaign adviser who participated in one of the more politically divided caucuses in St. Louis County.

There was no declared winner from Missouri's nearly 140 local caucuses. That's because state party rules did not require delegates to be bound to any particular candidate and no straw poll was conducted. Rather, the local caucuses were to elect 2,123 people to advance to congressional district conventions April 21 and a state convention June 2. It's at those meetings that the bulk of Missouri's 52 delegates will be bound to presidential candidates.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, won Missouri's nonbinding presidential primary in February and was the only candidate to campaign at caucus sites Saturday, focusing his efforts in St. Louis County. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Paul, a Texas congressman, campaigned in Missouri earlier in the week. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich mounted no effort in Missouri.

Before even the opening prayer, police were called in to the caucus in St. Charles County to remove a video camera set up by a Paul supporter that is against the local rules, said Eugene Dokes, the county Republican chairman. Things went downhill from there. Caucus participants "started to become verbally aggressive with event organizers and police officers," said St. Peters Police Officer Melissa Doss.

"It definitely got wild," Dokes said. "I had to tell a number of people not to approach me, not to come from behind me and not to scream at me. I think there was the possibility of someone trying to inflict personal injury or harm to me."

Two off-duty St. Peters police officers, who had been hired for the event by Republicans, called in for support from five law enforcement agencies, including the Missouri State Highway Patrol. A police helicopter arrived at the scene. Dokes made a motion to adjourn the caucus, and two people were arrested for trespassing after they refused to leave, police said.

"Today's events in St Charles were unfortunate, and the meeting was adjourned to protect the safety of all participants," said state Republican Party Chairman David Cole.

The state party said it hoped to try again to hold a caucus in St. Charles County at a later date.

A police officer also helped hush the crowd during recounts at a caucus at a Christian school in St. Louis County, where Santorum began the day at a rally with about 100 people. Local Republican leaders who organized the caucus supported Santorum, but Talent — who lives in the township — helped lead a spirited push for Romney.

"We need a dynamic, vigorous, strong, decisive executive leader, and my experience with Mitt Romney — having gotten to know him over the last four years— is that is exactly what he is," Talent told the caucus.

Then township committeewoman Judy Hon took the microphone, telling the crowd that Romney supporters had teamed up with Paul's camp on their slate of delegates. She decried Paul as not being "pro-life" and suggested he had been endorsed by the "Muslim Brotherhood." The slate of Santorum candidates prevailed in a close vote after a recount.

Although Saturday's caucuses produced no overall winner in Missouri, Santorum said they still were important.

"Delegates. It's as simple as that. They matter," Santorum said.

But Santorum didn't sweep the state, as he did in the February primary, for which none of the other candidates campaigned. Romney carried some township and county caucuses Saturday, and Paul also fared well in some places.

The biggest loser Saturday may have been the caucus process itself. Missouri has used primary elections to allot its presidential delegates in recent elections. The state party opted for caucuses this year to avoid getting penalized by the national Republican Party for holding its primary earlier than specified under party rules.

At a caucus in the St. Louis suburb of Wildwood, confusion was rampant. Initially, there was no microphone and people in the back of the room strained to hear the speakers. Then after a caucus chairman was elected, a credentialing committee spent a couple hours trying to verify addresses and voter registrations for caucus participants, creating growing angst.

Caucus participant Jeff Clooney, 40, initially said he was unsure if he preferred a primary or a caucus. Two hours into the caucus, he said: "Now I know. I want the primary."


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