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Democrats expect big turnout, and possible big names, at state gathering


Locals give space to Obama, Clinton. - ANTHONY LANE

It all seemed fun back in February.

Colorado's Democratic caucuses attracted a record turnout Feb. 5, and passion seemed to grow at county conventions the following weeks.

In El Paso County on Feb. 23, newcomers and party stalwarts Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama supporters alike filled Palmer High School's auditorium beyond capacity. They fought for spots on obscure committees, raised voices to support their candidates and seemed confident in the party's gathering might.

Then came March and April, with primaries and caucuses in only seven states, and debates about "bitter-gate," sniper fire and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. overwhelming the airwaves.

The campaigning became nasty, and many Democrats started pleading openly for a way to end it all.

Well, it ain't over yet. The state Democratic convention is May 17 at Colorado Springs World Arena, and officials are expecting a record turnout 8,500 to 9,000 as delegates fight for their candidates and for a chance to attend the national convention Aug. 25-28 in Denver.

They're also wondering whether Obama, Clinton or both will show up in Colorado Springs.

"We have requests in to both campaigns to come or send an out-of-state surrogate," says Pat Waak, state Democratic Party chair.

Though rumors are swirling about each candidate attending, Waak says, that's all they are right now.

Sherry Jackson, executive director of the state party, says it might be unclear who is coming until days before the convention. And delegates hoping to shake hands with a presidential contender should keep in mind that Kansas, New Hampshire and Nevada also have state conventions the same day.

John Morris, the El Paso County party chair, says an Obama or Clinton appearance would be exciting and wonderful. He also laughs slightly as he mentions the organizational and security challenges created by having a tightly scheduled national candidate show up: "You also kind of dread it."

Even if no presidential contenders make it, the scene here likely will be frenzied. El Paso County Democrats picked 390 delegates to the state convention and also filled out ranked lists of alternates to take the places of those who can't attend supposedly streamlining the process of filling open seats by making it as easy as reading names off a list. But not every county ranked alternates.

While each county's party officials are supposed to have their alternates squared away before the convention, Morris is worried some excited would-be delegates will seek to better their odds by lining up early at the World Arena.

"People could show up at 3 a.m.," he says.

Of course, in some ways that kind of enthusiasm would represent a welcome throwback to those heady days of winter, before the Democratic candidates' bickering dominated the news every day. Some say this struggle is playing into the hands of Republicans.

Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor, describes the current fight as a "political scientist's dream." He and his colleagues can argue at length over whether the exposure from a long nominating fight ultimately benefits or harms a party's eventual candidate; history reveals examples of both.

Loevy suggests either way, the process will have been good for democracy.

"Virtually every state has gotten to participate," Loevy says. "This is the way it should work every time."

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