The fellowship hall at Grace United Methodist Church was so crammed tonight that no one could even see the ginger snaps and carrot sticks in the back of the room, let alone find space to divide into candidate groups as they chose sides in the quaint but messy process that is the Iowa caucus.

The 78 folding chairs were filled and dozens of Democrats from Polk County Precinct 48 were lined up out the door, waiting for Suzi Alexander, a precinct official who was helping register people at the door and wearing a button that said: "Read My Lips--No New Texans."

This was lots more democracy than the precinct chair, Jodi Tomlonovic, had been counting on. So she made her first command decision of the night and moved the meeting across to the sanctuary, appointing three burly men as crossing guards to help keep order.

Most who came to this Democratic caucus had been lured by campaign volunteers who courted them over many weeks, but many were simply curious to taste their small slice--one out of 2,131 Democratic precincts--of the first real showdown between Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley.

Both parties held caucuses tonight and each reported sparse turnouts despite heavy spending by the candidates. Iowa's caucuses, often called democracy's strangest ritual, tend to attract only committed party members because of their complexity and because they last several hours.

Voters divide into groups according to the candidates they support, and then they have a chance to lobby the other members and try to woo them into switching sides.

"Iowa's the most important state in the union tonight," said Anthony Blash, 35, a pharmacy professor at Drake University who was one of the 161 people gathered at the church.

Linda and Juwon Buckner, both Gore supporters, came early just so the phone would stop ringing from campaign organizers pursuing their vote. The Buckners had answered three calls from candidates and interest groups since getting home from work, the last urgent pleas in a wave of mail and calls that they said had been overwhelming them since the fall.

"I started saying, 'I'm voting for Alan Keyes,' and they just say, 'Okay, thank you,' and get off the phone," said Juwon Buckner, 39, who works for an insurance firm.

The caucuses, which began at 7 p.m., are governed by 19 pages of fine-print rules that can make the meeting a bit tedious, even when the chair dispenses with the archaic instruction. "If the caucus is small, have all the caucus members introduce themselves," the rules say.

And then there is the math.

Caucus members are technically electing delegates to the county convention, so with a roomful of excited partisans, organizers have to calmly compute the results on a form with instructions like, "Total eligible caucus attendees X .15." Even the instructions on rounding off the result are complicated.

Marta Anderson, a senior from Drake University, made 150 calls today as part of a campus campaign group, Bulldogs for Bradley, whose job was to get his voters to the caucuses.

Nina Givan, 47, a puppeteer who had come out for Bradley, said that as romantic and charming as caucuses are, they should be simplified so more people will participate. Her grandparents were Mexican immigrants and she said that while her parents never failed to vote in a general election, they and many other members of minorities ignore caucuses.

"In my neighborhood, it would've been almost like sending your child to Princeton," she said.

Drake University isn't in the precinct, but its fraternity and sorority rows are, and Bradley's campaign had made a huge push in college towns. Several of the Drake students--wearing "Bradley Buddy" stickers--liked the idea of a caucus, since in theory it gives the truly undecided a chance to thrash out their choice. "You don't just vote for the person whose name you've heard a million times," said Allison Block, a junior majoring in political science.

When it came time to be counted, Gore supporters were sent pulpit left, Bradley supporters went pulpit right, uncommitted were in the middle set of pews and "other" was supposed to go to the back.

The Bradley crowd filled 15 pews, while the Gore supporters spread over just 12. One by one, they counted off as if they were in gym class. Bradley's precinct organizer, Dale Chell, shouted out the last number--105--and pumped his fist as the young crowd whooped at their winning count.

By comparison, the Gore group practically whispered its count, which ended at 55. Now it was time for horse trading--a chance for each side to lure the other.

But the Bradley-ites just smiled smugly as the Gore supporters muttered to themselves about why the candidate division inside this church sanctuary looked so different from the polls, which had Gore winning by a margin of about two to one.

"What happened?" said Via Postma, 51, who was in the back of the Gore delegation. "Frankly, I'm amazed."

One of the Gore group, Roger Schoonover, a retired ironworker, noticed how young the Bradley fans were and had a brainstorm.

"Cold beer over here!" he shouted.

No one budged, but they laughed, and Schoonover, 58, overplayed his hand.

He walked over to the Bradley pews and pointed back toward the Gore gray heads.

"We have a lot more experience over there," he said.

The Bradley wing hooted him down.

That was it. In a very unusual result for an Iowa caucus, no one switched.

"You look pretty set," said the chair, Tomlonovic.

And so it was: five delegates for Bradley, and three for Gore.