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Wyoming basks in the spotlight

Times Staff Writer

The headline in the Casper Star-Tribune the other day pretty much said it all: “Tiny and very Republican, Wyoming is a Democratic player at last.”

Normally, it is not much fun being a Democrat here. The sparsely populated state -- with half a million residents, it ranks 50th in the nation -- has 59,130 registered Democrats, compared with 136,000 Republicans.

When asked to describe what that feels like, Kathy Karpan, a former Wyoming secretary of state who supports Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, didn’t miss a beat: “How about Custer? We are always outnumbered, always the underdog.”

But this week, Clinton resuscitated her campaign after a long primary losing streak, keeping the nomination contest with Barack Obama close. And suddenly Wyoming Democrats are basking in a spotlight they have not enjoyed since the state’s delegates put John F. Kennedy over the top at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

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What is at stake when Democrats caucus here today?

In reality, not much. A mere 12 delegates are up for grabs. An additional six, mostly superdelegates, eventually will be in the mix, bringing Wyoming’s total to 18 of the 2,025 needed to secure the nomination.

But with the state’s caucus occurring during a lull in the nominating calendar, presidential candidates -- and one very high-profile surrogate -- have stepped foot onto Wyoming soil for the first time in nearly 20 years.

On Friday, Clinton and Obama each made two appearances. Both visited Casper, while Clinton also stopped in Cheyenne and Obama went to Laramie.

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In Cheyenne, Laramie County Community College President Darrel L. Hammon seemed to be referring to the Republican domination in the state when he welcomed the crowd.

“One of the things that’s most important to us at this institution is we allow anyone on our campus,” he said. “When people said to me, ‘You know, Sen. Hillary Clinton is gonna be on your campus. Are you OK with that?’ I said, ‘Why wouldn’t we be?’ ”

Sitting in the crowd of 1,800 was Anthony Maestas, 46, who retired two years ago from the Air Force. A Republican, he said he was not a fan of the Clintons when the former president was in office.

But he clapped throughout Hillary Clinton’s speech, particularly when she talked about the need for universal healthcare and the importance of providing good benefits for veterans.

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“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said afterward. “I was impressed.”

He planned to see Obama later in the evening in Laramie, about an hour away.

On Thursday, Bill Clinton drew about 5,000 people to three rallies across the more populous southeastern part of the state.

Chelsea Clinton, the couple’s daughter, held court in a college cafeteria in Casper, drawing about 200.

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Joseph Hall, a 28-year-old student at Casper College, said he was grateful that candidates were visiting. He sat near where two students were dishing out free ice cream as the crowd waited for Chelsea Clinton to arrive.

“We never get anyone,” Hall said. “I see on CNN all these giant rallies with people holding signs, hootin’ and hollerin.’ I wish we had more stuff like that to participate in.”

Chelsea, who arrived an hour late, did not give a speech. Instead, she took questions for an hour, sounding nearly every policy note -- similar in wording -- that her parents hit on the campaign trail.

In Laramie, her father made reference to the state’s motto -- “Equal Rights” -- when he told an overflow crowd at the University of Wyoming: “You led the nation with women’s suffrage; you might as well lead the nation with the first woman president.”

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Caucus day also happens to be International Women’s Day.

“It’s just so exciting to have this presidential race shape up such that our votes really do matter,” said Wyoming Democratic Party spokesman Bill Luckett, whose phone has been ringing nonstop since Tuesday, when it became clear the state was going to be in the sights of the national political media. “It’s fantastic and an honor to have Sens. Clinton and Obama and former President Clinton coming to this state to try to get its support.”

Luckett said Democratic officials were scrambling to accommodate larger-than-planned-for crowds for today’s 23 caucuses, one in each county. Only Democrats will be allowed to vote, and most will have to arrive at least an hour before their caucus starts in order to register. Lines, and some confusion, are anticipated.

There have been no public polls of Democrats here asking specifically about Clinton versus Obama -- not, it turns out, because of Wyoming’s libertarian bent and intense regard for personal privacy, but because no one expected the state to be a player in the contest.

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“Anybody that tells you what’s gonna happen on Saturday is strictly guessing,” said Cheyenne ophthalmologist John A. Millin, who chairs the state Democratic Party.

“Sen. Obama has done much better in smaller states with caucuses. But the Clinton campaign seems to have learned from Sen. Obama’s successes and is paying attention to organizing.”

Millin, a superdelegate, committed to Obama back in November. He said he fell in political love after seeing the Illinois senator give his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“I was the ‘You had me at hello’ kind of guy,” Millin said. “I knew right then that guy was going to be president one day, and I was going to be helping him.”

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Millin’s passion got him into some hot water in December, when he gave a statement to the Denver Post suggesting that Clinton’s nomination would damage the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the Rocky Mountain West and hurt other Democratic candidates on the November ballot.

“It has become the dirty little secret in the Democratic Party,” wrote Millin, 49. “For reasons I don’t agree with and don’t completely understand, most voters in Wyoming seem to hate Hillary Clinton.

“This is in part due to the perception of her as being someone who supports big government, most notably through a federal government takeover of the healthcare system. She is also paying a heavy price for the sins of her husband.”

The story was linked on the Drudge Report, then picked up by conservative pundits.

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Clinton supporters, including Karpan, were outraged.

It was inappropriate for the leader of the state’s Democratic Party to take sides in such a negative way, Karpan said. But more important, “I also think he’s wrong. Hillary has been as vetted as anyone in the entire political history of America. She has had the kitchen sink, the kitchen and the house thrown at her, and she’s still standing.”

Just in the last week, Karpan said, Obama has been on the defensive -- including Friday, with the resignation of his advisor Samantha Power, who called Clinton “a monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper.

But in Wyoming, even Democrats stick to their guns. (Unqualified support for the 2nd Amendment is the second item of the party’s platform.) And Millin is unrepentant.

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“To the extent that it hurt some of my friends in the Wyoming Democratic Party, I am sorry,” he said. “I don’t regret having done it.”

Regardless of all the Democratic attention being showered on the Cowboy State, Wyoming reliably votes Republican in presidential elections.

But Democratic officials hope that the burst of interest will help draw people to the party even after the candidates and national press pack up and move on to Mississippi -- whose 40 delegates are up for grabs Tuesday.

Any increase in the number of registered Democrats here would come as welcome news to people such as Connie Colman, 50, an adult education teacher at Casper College.

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A Wyoming native and lifelong Democrat who is married to a Republican, Colman said she feels like “an oddity in this state. It’s hard to meet a good Democratic man in Wyoming. . . . Not that I’m looking.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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