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Iowa’s GOP caucuses may see some Democratic defectors

Adding an unpredictable element to the presidential contest in Iowa, some disaffected Democratic voters are planning to switch sides and cast Republican ballots in Tuesday’s caucuses.

Caucus rules limit participation to registered party members. But anyone who shows up at a Republican caucus — including Democrats, independents and libertarians — can join the GOP or switch their party affiliation on the spot.

Rep. Ron Paul, in a tight race for first place in Iowa with Mitt Romney, is perhaps the most likely to benefit from Democratic crossovers. His campaign is distributing information sheets advising Iowans that they can register Republican “for a day” on caucus night, then switch their registration back afterward if they want.

“It’s easy. You can register on your way in the door,” David Fischer, co-chairman of Paul’s Iowa organization, told voters Thursday at a campaign stop in Atlantic.

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John Long, a registered Democrat, said that “last time, unfortunately, I believed a lot of the rhetoric” and voted for Obama, after going to a Democratic caucus as a Joe Biden supporter. Long feels that job-crushing regulations have gotten worse under President Obama, who he said had failed to end the “embarrassing” political spectacle in Washington, in part because he was too weak to stand up to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Democratic leaders in Congress.

The 65-year-old semi-retired accountant plans to vote for Paul at a Republican caucus in West Des Moines. “Ron Paul has a lot going for him, particularly in the economic area,” he said. Long doesn’t care for the Texas congressman’s isolationist foreign policy but says that no candidate is perfect and that Paul “is principled enough not to say stuff just to get elected.”

Even though members of the Occupy movement disrupted a recent Paul rally in Des Moines, the candidate speaks sympathetically to voters about the left-wing group, which he likens to the tea-party movement that he is credited with inspiring. His outspoken support for civil liberties, including staunch opposition to the Patriot Act, and dovish foreign policy views have natural appeal to many Democrats, particularly in Iowa, where antiwar sentiment has long run high.

But estimating the effect of party-switchers is extremely difficult. Like newcomers to the political process, they fall outside the ranks of the registered Republican and independent voters hotly pursued by the campaigns and tracked by pollsters.

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With polls showing a close race among the leading candidates, an influx of Democrats into the GOP caucuses could make an impact, or might amount to a relatively insignificant number of votes. Iowa Democratic Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky dismisses talk that Democrats dissatisfied with Obama will defect to the GOP on caucus night, calling it “a canard.” Crossover voting — when members of one party invade the presidential contest of another, sometimes to make mischief — is often predicted but rarely materializes.

But there are reasons to suspect that a different dynamic could prevail this time.

Iowa Democrats will hold their own caucuses on Tuesday, featuring a live Web video appearance by Obama, whose caucus victory four years ago launched him to the White House. But there isn’t a contested nomination fight, and caucus attendance will be a fraction of the 2008 record.

Instead, all the action, and voter turnout, will be on the Republican side, after more than a dozen televised debates, weeks of nonstop campaign ads and a closing blitz of in-person appearances by the candidates.

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Some disgruntled Democrats say they might wind up voting to reelect Obama but still plan to caucus with Republicans. According to interviews with Iowans at recent campaign events, Democrats and independents who backed Obama last time are looking at several of the GOP contenders, including Romney and Rick Perry, a former Democrat, as well as Paul.

Cheryl Hout, an Obama voter from Osceola, Iowa, said she “fell for” Obama in 2008 “because he’s such a good speaker,” but now calls the president “a liar.” The 54-year-old special-education teacher is very unhappy that he didn’t deliver on the change he promised, especially with a healthcare plan whose implementation has been much too slow to meet her family’s medical needs. She and her husband, Terry, 63, an independent who says his Obama vote was “a mistake” and who has never attended a caucus before, plan to vote for Paul.

“We’re looking for something new to revive the country,” she said. “We’re so close to losing our whole country. China owns us. They could just walk right in and take us. It’s scary.”

Four years ago, the Paul campaign counted on a crossover vote that never materialized, which makes some advisors leery of predicting one this time. “Getting people to walk into a caucus and change their registration is not the easiest thing to do,” said national campaign manager John Tate.

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That was a concern for Marilyn Miller Butler as she waited for Paul at the community center in Atlantic. She might vote for Obama in the fall — the president has “done a good job under difficult circumstances,” she said, though “sometimes I think he’s bent over a little too far backward without any reciprocal behavior” from his political foes — but the Houston congressman has her attention now.

She knows she’ll get some ribbing from Republican friends if she goes to a GOP caucus, she said, adding: “I’d have to get over my feeling of being disloyal.”

But the Iowa retiree said that Paul “is the only fresh voice around. He has his own ideas.” And as he spoke, she found a lot to like. She applauded repeatedly, including when the Republican candidate said — in an echo of liberal Democrat George McGovern four decades ago — that the U.S. needs to “come home from Afghanistan and all these unwinnable wars.”

By the time he finished, Butler’s doubts about defecting and attending a GOP caucus had been resolved. “OK,” she said. “I’m going.”

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paul.west@latimes.com


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