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VOTER TURNOUT

In Primaries, The Political Process Is the Biggest Winner

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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) who announced her endorsement of Barack Obama Monday, talks with Newsweek's Michael Isikoff about primary results Tuesday night. Video by washingtonpost.com & Newsweek

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By David Nakamura, Lisa Rein and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fasil Dessalegn of the District voted for Barack Obama first thing yesterday morning, hoping the presidential candidate could provide him with a better future. Three hours later, Obama delivered, walking into the doughnut shop Dessalegn manages on Capitol Hill and handing him $20.

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"I need a dozen doughnuts and a dozen hot chocolates," Obama said, motioning to his sign-waving campaign volunteers shivering outside near the Eastern Market Metro station.

"On the house," stammered Dessalegn, 29, an Ethiopian immigrant, as a crush of photographers pressed in.

"No, I have to pay -- full price," Obama responded. "You pick the doughnuts."

Not every voter in the Potomac Primary across the District, Maryland and Virginia got such personal attention from the candidates: Obama, the Illinois senator, jetted off to Wisconsin shortly after his Capitol Hill appearance, and his rival for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was in Texas yesterday.

Nevertheless, throngs of residents bundled in gloves, scarves and heavy coats turned out in what election officials were predicting to be record numbers. So eager were people to vote in one of the most closely contested presidential campaigns ever that they braved long lines, ballot snafus, low temperatures and, last night, icy roads that prompted Maryland officials to extend polls 1 1/2 hours to 9:30 p.m.

The rush created some long waits, particularly in the District, where some polling locations ran out of paper ballots and others were dealing with jammed ballot scanners. Poll workers encouraged voters to use touch screens instead, but 20 people were waiting at Church of the Annunciation last evening to use the sole machine.

In Southeast Washington, Pamela Thomas, 40, had left her office a few miles away at 5 p.m. and took 2 1/2 hours to reach her polling place in Congress Heights. She said voting was too important to miss. "I have nothing against Hillary or Bill, but I don't know how to put it into words. There's just something about" Obama, Thomas said.

Votes were also cast yesterday in the Republican primary between Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.). But Danielle Griffith, 40, who was waiting in line at Flowers High School in Springdale, said it was the historic Democratic contest that had drawn most of the interest. "What this means to me is that everything that the civil rights movement meant, everything that the women's rights movement meant, wasn't in vain," Griffith said.

Obama supporters were out in force, but Clinton volunteers refused to be intimidated. At LaSalle Elementary School in Northeast Washington, Janet Liriano, a real estate agent, waded through a sea of Obama signs to plant a few "Hillary" placards in the lawn.

"Not too many of those here!" one Obama supporter shouted. Liriano chuckled and ignored him.

The disagreements showed up within families. At Rolling Terrace Elementary in Silver Spring, an area heavy with Latino voters, Jacqueline Gutierrez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, pulled the lever for Obama. "He's the young candidate, the candidate of the future," she said.

But her brother, Radhames De Leon, immediately neutralized her vote by casting his for Clinton. Obama is "too young. He doesn't understand much about the country," De Leon said. "She has experience. She was in the White House."

Not everyone was so certain, agonizing until the final moment. In Virginia, where voters were allowed to cast ballots for any of the candidates, no matter their political affiliation, Rachelle Thompson, 37, an African American lawyer who is a registered Republican, arrived at the Chinquapin Recreation Center in Alexandria prepared to support Huckabee. She voted for Obama. "It was a game-time decision," she said.

Supporters were doing their best to spread the message. At 1 p.m., a diverse group of 200 Obama volunteers gathered in the parking lot of the Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue NE ready to canvass neighborhoods. A recorded Obama speech blared from loudspeakers mounted atop a car. Clad in Obama T-shirts, five D.C. women -- two friends and three strangers -- piled in a vehicle and set out for the northern portion of the city with a list of 300 addresses.

On Capitol Hill, as Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) left the doughnut shop and headed to the Eastern Market Metro station entrance, a throng of supporters cheered.

Shirel Williams of the District reached out and shook Obama's hand, then let out a holler.

"This is a new day for us," she whooped. "I'm sooo excited!"


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