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Iowa caucuses sure to offer unconventional sites — and issues

MANCHESTER, IOWA — If you expect Iowans to discuss Iraq and health care in schools and city halls at the caucus tonight, you’re right. They will. But they’ll also hash out some unconventional issues at some unconventional venues.

Whether horses should be slaughtered and how teachers should be paid may be decisive issues in a state filled with swing voters who can personalize their politics, spurred by the easy ability to ask an individualized question of a presidential candidate in their back yard.

John Behan, a 54-year-old farmer from Independence, had been leaning toward Barack Obama until he learned the Illinois senator voted for a ban on slaughtering horses. “He says he’s not taking special interests, but how did he come up with this issue?” Behan asked. “My concern is what’s going to be next, once PETA gets their foot in the door. Are they going to ban butchering veal calves?”

Laura McCreery, 26, a biology teacher in Davenport, is concerned that Mike Huckabee’s theology could affect her curriculum. “My fear is that he would force creationism into science classrooms,” she said. She also worries that Obama’s proposal for merit-based teacher raises would pressure teachers to inflate grades. “Those issues,” McCreery said, “are more important to me than Iraq.”

Championing universal pre-K is the surest way to win over Raechel Keltner, an education major at Luther College in Decorah. Teaching pre-K while getting paid as a schoolteacher would be her “dream job,” she said.

Then there’s the idea of requiring immigrants to learn English, a stance that won both Mitt Romney and Obama hearty applause here, where 98.99 percent of the town’s 5,000 residents are white, according to the 2000 census.

Gun control is a top priority for many voters in Ollie, a southern town of 200, said longtime resident George Northup. “A lot of hunters around here are just adamant about the Second Amendment,” he said. “They’re afraid the Democrats are going to take away their guns.”

As to Northup, 56, he’s caucusing for John Edwards because they both grew up poor. “He’s the same as me,” Northup said. “I believe Edwards is in touch with the little people; he’s a little guy inside.”

For the second time, Northup is hosting the Democratic precinct caucus at his repair shop, Up North Auto. Thirty-seven folks turned up in 2004, and this time around, Northup is expecting more. He’s setting up 75 chairs and pouring two tons of sand on the icy ground “so everyone will have a sure foot.” With coffee and soda on the house, against a backdrop of brake pads and fan belts, he’ll try to persuade the Obama and Clinton supporters from town to “see the light.”

Up North Auto is a natural place for uncensored political debate, Northup said. “This is where the gossip begins and the gossip ends and where the stories get bigger and better. We’ve lost the hardware store and gas stations over the year; this is the last stand in town. It’s a good ol’ homestyle setting.”

Meanwhile, Democrats from the northeastern town of Prairieburg will caucus at CJ’s Bar and Grill, where Busch Light, Bud Light, Budweiser and Amber Bock will be on tap and the house specialty is a roast beef sandwich.

“I think it’ll help them relax a little bit, but I don’t think we’ll have any heavy drinkers,” said owner Jim Thurm, who expects about 60 folks to show up tonight.

Thurm said he supports Obama because of his shorter political resume. “They always talk about candidates having experience and all that kind of good stuff. Well, a lot of our experienced ones are maybe a little too experienced. They know ways around things.”

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