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Dean, Kucinich could be factors in island's caucuses

HONOLULU -- You could call this the un-Iowa. With its Democratic presidential caucuses coming up Tuesday, Hawaii has none of the electoral fanfare and frenzied politicking that marked the contests in Iowa and elsewhere.

No television commercials or satellite trucks. No mailboxes brimming with campaign literature. No candidates dropping by the coffee shop or the poi factory. In fact, there is little to alert islanders, except the most committed Democratic activists, that the party is about to vote its preference for who should carry its standard against President Bush.

But even in this sleepy atmosphere, former Vermont governor Howard Dean managed to inject new energy into the process this year. His team launched its effort in Hawaii more than a year ago -- far earlier than the other candidates -- and impressed party regulars by working its way into position for a strong showing at Tuesday's caucuses.

With Dean now giving up his White House quest, it is not clear how many of those backers will stick with their leadership, which vows to fight on for Dean's message, or will throw in with the nationwide delegate leaders, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. One major Dean backer, former governor Ben Cayetano, said he now supports Kerry.

"We have a lot of supporters and lot of those want to come out next Tuesday. But this adds a different dynamic. We don't know what will happen," Josh Wisch, chairman of Hawaii for Dean, said following Dean's withdrawal Wednesday. "We're going to try to do as well as we can here." Of Dean, he said, "This is a man who has single-handedly reenergized, redefined, and restored the backbone of an entire national political party. That needs to be heard at the convention. We're going to help him get some delegates."

Caucus attendees will meet in 81 school cafeterias and libraries Tuesday to mark their presidential preferences on secret ballots. The outcome determines how 20 of the state's 29 delegates are apportioned, with the delegates themselves selected at the state party convention in May.

Many observers anticipate Hawaii will join the Kerry steamroller, although the small number of caucus participants -- typically fewer than 3,000 -- makes it foreseeable that Dean and others could also reach the 15 percent threshold to win delegates.

Efforts for Edwards also have picked up under the recently organized chairmanship of former governor John Waihee and former lieutenant governor Mazie Hirono, with support from prominent attorneys. Starting late is not necessarily a problem here, Hirono said, because relatively small numbers of people can network and make a big difference.

"It's all about showing up [to the caucuses]. If you look at the past history, how many show up, it's not hugely daunting," Hirono said.

Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, the only contender to take the rare step of campaigning in the island state, also has a committed network. They have helped enroll hundreds of new Hawaii Democratic Party members, according to Bart Dame, a veteran organizer who heads Kucinich's effort here. He said some Kucinich fans who once backed Dean as more electable have been turning back to Kucinich.

"We want to send a message, not just nationally but to local Democratic officials that there is a strong constituency for progressive politics," Dame said, predicting his candidate will win delegates here.

Divorced this year from the big Super Tuesday states, Hawaii still hasn't drawn much buzz, or any campaigning candidates save for Kucinich, who wowed an overflow crowd at an Oahu church in October. Hawaii shares Tuesday's spotlight only with Utah and Idaho, and most of the national attention remains on the multistate Super Tuesday a week later.

Before he dropped out Wednesday, and despite the strong backing of Representative Neil Abercrombie and Cayetano, Dean's string of losses and the endorsement withdrawal of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, was taking a toll.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association, an AFSME affiliate and a powerhouse in state politics, initially had provided foot soldiers for Dean. But executive director Russell Okata cited "a noticeable drop in interest" in recent weeks as some union activists defected to Kerry. Union members, he said, "are looking for a winner. They're not looking for somebody just to give a good fight."

Kerry is backed by Hawaii's senior senator, Daniel Inouye, and the organizing skills of former state party chairman Richard Port.

"There are four major candidates on the ballot in Hawaii, and each has a local campaign with good people heading up their campaigns. In that kind of situation, anyone can win," Port said, quickly adding, "I do think Kerry will do well." State party officials report that the Dean and Kucinich forces have helped boost party membership by more than 1,000. New same-day signups also may result in more participation than in past caucuses, which had a 45-day advance enrollment requirement. If they stick around, those new faces will be especially welcome come November as Democrats fight GOP efforts to erode their control of the state Legislature, and pursue their fervent goal of defeating Bush, activists say.

Democrats also hope the feisty Dean operation will bolster the party in the face of a newly energized Republican Party that won the state's governorship two years ago for the first time in four decades.

"What Dean did over here was generate enthusiasm among younger people, especially young Caucasians who are now going to register as Democrats. I haven't seen that kind of activity before," said Cayetano. "That's good for the Democratic Party."

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