In small neighborhood houses and cavernous schools across the state, what could be a record number of Utah voters attended GOP and Democratic Party caucuses Tuesday night, choosing delegates who will, come party conventions in May, ultimately decide which candidates survive to face off in a primary election.

"It's the best ever," said Dave Palfreyman of caucus attendance in Orem. "It's unbelievable."

GOP gubernatorial candidates Parley Hellewell and Gary Herbert got a taste of overcrowded classrooms when 75 caucus attendees packed into one small classroom to hear their pitches.

"This is really grass-roots politics," Herbert said.

Party officials won't know for another couple of days how many people participated, but the sense was that attendance at party caucuses was way up.

"We had more people than two years ago, and two years ago was a record," said Joe Cannon, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, noting there were about 10 additional people attending his precinct meeting.

Democrats were also exuberant. A party caucus at Highland High School, the home district for Scott Matheson Jr., drew 200 supporters, much to the glee of Democratic faithfuls who hope to move him into the Governor's Mansion. The last Democrat governor to live there was Matheson's father.

"It looks good," Matheson said during Tuesday's turnout. "I have a support network."

Mike Reberg, district director for Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, brother to Scott, said this is one of the biggest crowds he has ever seen.

"I've been doing this a long time," he said. "Usually you have eight to 10 people in a room. There's at least 200 here, and it creates a buzz that's exciting."

A recent Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV found that 15 percent of registered voters definitely planned to attend the party caucuses, and another 15 percent probably would attend. While that may not seem like a lot, historically attendance at mass meetings is dismal, usually 10 percent or less of registered voters.

Party leaders, candidates and elected officials have all been campaigning in recent days, encouraging people to attend the caucuses. And church and community leaders have also issued the call.

But the real reason for the turnout may be that interest in the 2004 election is already running high in large part because of nine GOP candidates and one Democrat running for governor. Among them is Gov. Olene Walker, who is seeking election to the office she inherited when then-Gov. Mike Leavitt resigned to work for the Bush administration.

Walker is leading early polls of registered voters and is one of only two Republican candidates who would probably beat Matheson, the son of a popular Utah governor, according to the Dan Jones & Associates poll.

But polls at this stage are more a measure of name recognition. What really matters is how the candidates registered with the delegates elected Tuesday night, how well they turned out their supporters to party caucuses and if they were elected delegates.

GOP gubernatorial hopeful Fred Lampropoulos, a businessman, ran for a delegate slot himself in his South Jordan neighborhood. He won.

"I am reasonably confident we did well," Lampropoulos said. "We worked hard. It is going to come down to who worked hard, who was better organized and who has the most desire."

Walker, herself an automatic delegate because she is governor, brought her husband, Myron, and two grandchildren to her neighborhood caucus meeting, held in a modest Avenues home around the corner from the Governor's Mansion.

There, Myron Walker pitched his neighbors to elect him a state delegate so he could support "a very warm, caring person" who "would make one of the best governors the state has had."

"I think she's going to have a tough time getting out of the caucus," he told the 16 residents who attended the caucus. "I think if she can get before the general public, she would do quite well. That's why I want to run — to support her."

But after tangling in a tie vote with resident Rod Olsen, Utah's first "lad" lost in a revote.

"I better visit with you!" Walker quipped to Olsen, eliciting laughs from attendees.

"I'm already really impressed, if that makes a difference," Olsen replied.

Former Speaker of the House Nolan Karras, himself a Republican candidate for governor, found his own way to lighten the tense mood surrounding the first serious test of the campaign season. He lined up with about 100 supporters for a "precaucus sack race" to promote caucus participation.

But party caucuses are no joking matter, and the candidates take the caucuses very seriously. Failure to get your supporters to the caucuses and elected as delegates can mean an early exit in state convention voting.

Herbert, a Utah County commissioner, played to the hometown crowd, telling his Orem precinct it was high time someone from Utah County was sitting in the governor's chair. Hellewell, a state senator, was pitching his credentials as a true GOP conservative, saying, "We haven't had a governor who believes in the party platform," even though Republicans have held the seat since 1984.

Candidates have to take the caucuses seriously because those who are elected delegates take it seriously.

"These are the people who have taken the time to study the issues and are passionate about them," Lampropoulos said. "And they ask the toughest questions."

For Democrats, there were few mysteries as to who their candidates will be. In most — but not all — races, delegates will be unified behind candidates unopposed for the Democratic nomination. The lack of primary battles not withstanding, enthusiasm was running extremely high among Democrats who believe they have a legitimate chance at the White House and the Utah Governor's Mansion and other races.

Democrats were almost giddy at Tuesday's caucuses. There were die-hard political activists like Elaine and Phil Emmi who have been attending party caucus meetings since 1970. "I ran a presidential campaign back when John Anderson ran as an independent in 1980," Elaine Emmi said.

And there were others like JoLee Heaton, the voting district chairwoman who has been at the caucus meetings since she was in grade school when her parents held the meeting at their house.

"I worked for (Scott's) father," she said. "My niece works for Jim."

The connection is not lost on Rep. Rosalind McGee, D-Salt Lake. "This is Matheson territory," she said.

But there are always first-timers like Linda Lindstrom, who showed up to give her support to the party and possibly be part of history in the making.

"I think the Democrats," she said, "have a good chance to win the governorship this year."


E-mail: donna@desnews.com; jtcook@desnews.com; jburke@desnews.com