The Coggeshell home sits on a hill, down a gravelly road, off a dark two-lane highway, in a speck of a place. Blink and you miss Sandyville, population 50. Tonight the Coggeshells turned their brick two-story into the lone Republican precinct caucus for Union Township, and here 18 Iowans came to chew over the presidential race with their neighbors and make a decision.
"This is the country," explained Sandra Coggeshell.
The Hill family was the first to arrive--Craig, who would chair the caucus, wife Patti and 17-year-old son Adam, who will be old enough to vote in August and thus was eligible to participate. The Hills are farmers--hogs, corn, soybeans. "You notice that country people take off their shoes and city people don't," said Patti, removing hers. And sure enough, it became apparent quickly that this would be the All-Socks Caucus.
The caucusgoers assembled in the living room, under the bright chandelier lights, and debated. In the course of discussing their presidential preferences, they managed to toss around free trade and welfare and even to take a couple of shots at the news media. They argued about "politics as usual" and who could and couldn't be trusted to lead the country. They promoted their dream tickets: Bush-Forbes, Forbes-Keyes. And they had this to say about Sen. John McCain, almost in unison: "He should have come to Iowa."
No one spoke up for McCain. Ditto for Sen. Orrin Hatch. "Who's he?" asked one caucus participant. "I think he's the busboy at the Marriott," said another.
It became apparent quickly that Paul Coggeshell would be the star of the show he was hosting. Coggeshell is "a chiropractic physician"--don't call him a chiropractor--with a twangy, sandpaper voice and the kind of intensity George C. Scott displayed when he won an Oscar playing Patton. Coggeshell also is a Steve Forbes supporter, and sometimes he just says the darndest things.
Exhibit A: "Most rich people are not as hard-nosed as the media make them out to be. That's Hollywood. Most millionaires don't even care about their money. Most millionaires today are just common people."
To which one woman replied: "Oh, c'mon."
Exhibit B: "We don't want some illiterate bean head up there" in the White House.
Exhibit C: "I don't want a party man. I don't think the Republicans have been all that great. They've been better than the Democrats. But they seem to be gutless wonders for some reason. They don't stand up for anything."
Coggeshell was sweet, in his own way, and his darts at the other candidates landed like comical barbs.
There aren't many Paul Coggeshells hosting caucuses anymore. Fewer than 130 of the 2,131 Democratic precinct caucuses were held in private residences tonight, according to party officials. And the Republican numbers were not much different. Increasingly, over the years, officials in both parties have encouraged the use of public spaces--schools, churches, courthouses--that are accessible to the disabled and provide the veneer of neutrality.
In a home, "there may be a kind of reticence to express dissatisfaction with your host's choice," says Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University. "There is a concern that some people might feel a little inhibited in that kind of circumstance."
There is another concern: Maybe, just maybe, the homeowner may try to, you know, influence the results. There is a famous story from yesteryear about a host who started a fire to distract the proceedings. While everyone was running around chaotically and volunteer firemen were hosing down flames, the host elected his own slate of delegates.
Anyway, suffice it to say that the charming, cookies-and-punch farmhouse gatherings of Iowa political lore have mostly gone the way of the typewriter.
Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses are an oddity, really. A brazen brew of democratic principles and undemocratic ones. These precinct gatherings are a great give-and-take of grass-roots expression. Still, for a state that is 97 percent white and not very representative of the nation as a whole, its process carries a whole lot of weight.
Just after 7 p.m., Craig Hill announced that the caucus would officially begin. "I think it's good to have a discussion about each of these candidates, but that could go on all night if we've got some windy folks. I just want to say that."
Not a problem. Wilford O'Neal, a retired tire factory worker, needed only 47 seconds to speak up for Alan Keyes.
But when it came time for the Forbes presentation, Coggeshell didn't rush.
"Well, I think Steve Forbes is a man of integrity. He's not a politician. I like his flat tax. He's a moral person; he's been married to his wife for 27 years. He does not need the money. He's not like some of those politicians. Take Tom Harkin, for instance. He went in there with zero and he came back with millions of dollars."
After Hill began extolling Bush's virtues--the only chief executive in the race, an inclusive man, a Republican who has converted 70 Texas Democrats--Coggeshell eyed him. "I remember you," he quipped. "You were the guy who voted for Dole, and he was kind of hopeless."
At 8:13 p.m., Hill passed out the paper ballots and everyone voted. Then he collected them and went over to the dining room table to tally, as six other caucusgoers acted as verifiers. "Steve Forbes just pulled ahead!" said Coggeshell, monitoring the count. Then Gary Bauer's tallies started mounting, four in a row. "Holy cow!" said Coggeshell.
And then, with the ballots counted, Hill asked his vote-checkers: "Does everybody agree on this count?"
They nodded. And Hill announced the results to the larger group: Keyes, 2; Bauer, 5; Bush, 5; Forbes, 6 . . .
Winner: Steve Forbes.
Coggeshell pumped his hands. "I figured Bush would win by a landslide. I don't know what it was. [Forbes is] not a politician, I guess, and we don't need politics as usual."
And after an hour's worth of other business, the caucusgoers repaired to the kitchen for coffee and chocolate chip cookies.
CAPTION: Patti Hill, one of the 18 Iowa voters who had their say last night at the Coggeshell household.
CAPTION: Paul Coggeshell, standing by his man.