For the first time in a long time -- maybe for the first time ever -- Alaska got a chance on Tuesday to get in the game while it still mattered in a presidential primary.
Wow. Did we take advantage of an opportunity or what? Members of both parties crammed into polling places and district caucuses in unprecedented numbers as Alaskans participated in "Super Tuesday" contests for the first time.
Traffic backed up for miles west of Begich Middle School, where Anchorage Democrats were caucusing over whether to pick Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, or that once and still former Alaska Democratic senator, Mike Gravel. With hundreds of people waiting to get in and hundreds more on the roads outside, the original 6 p.m. deadline for getting things started was pushed back to 6:30. And then stretched again.
"We're now thinking 2,000," Democratic Party Chairwoman Patty Higgins said a bit after 5 p.m., when the traffic backup was only blocks, not miles. "I don't think it's been like this since 1960."
Four years ago, only about 700 Democrats turned out statewide for the presidential primary.
The early returns from the Democratic caucuses fell heavily to Obama, who put staffers in-state and had the endorsement of former Gov. Tony Knowles. With 60 percent of Alaska's 40 House districts reporting, Obama had collected more than 70 percent of the delegates. Clinton had 27 percent, with 1 percent uncommitted.
The Republicans didn't plan to stop voting until 8:30 p.m., and expected to release their first numbers around 9:15 p.m.
At downtown's Egan Center, Republicans lined up 50 deep in the early going. The Republicans had a simpler process. While the Democrats all collected in rooms and showed their support in sheer numbers, the Republicans lined up and cast ballots.
Still, there was a good crowd. Most Anchorage Republicans collected at the Egan, but the District 21 GOP met at Muldoon's How How Restaurant, flooding the place to choose among Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee and John McCain.
Polls and caucuses were jam-packed in Homer too.
Last time the Democrats had a presidential caucus there, 20 people showed up. Tuesday night, nearly 400 people crowded into the theater at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Like most of the rest of Alaska, they were heavily for Obama -- by close to 4-to-1 over Clinton.
Best of all, said former district chairwoman Angie Newby, nearly 300 new Democrats registered.
One was Lucas Wilcox, 26, who said he had never voted before. "I was so dismayed by the way Bush stole two elections," Wilcox said.
A block away at the Homer Chamber of Commerce, Republicans were also shoulder to shoulder.
Some were first-timers, there to vote for Paul.
"He needs all the votes he can get," said Dale Seekins.
Others said they were voting for Romney because he's conservative. "Romney is the farthest from Hillary and Obama," Bob Carey said.
Anticipating an unusually heavy turnout in Ketchikan, Democratic organizer Dawn Allen-Herron decided to back up the capacity at the New York Cafe and booked a second facility. That caucus looked likely to end up as a teleconference between the two sites.
What's the interest level among Ketchikan Democrats?
"I received 21 calls last night while I was asleep, and 23 while I was at the gym today," Allen-Herron said.
District 12 Republican chairman Scott Smith said things were busy around Valdez, Glennallen and Delta, too.
"The interest level appears to be high, at least in our district," Smith said. "You do everything you can to prepare in advance. Hopefully we can accommodate the crowd. And if you get that kind of crowd, that's good all the way around, anyway."
Things got off to a bit slower start in Petersburg. About a half-hour after the Republican polling place in Jean Ellis' house opened, some 17 people had voted. Ellis was prepared for 100.
"We're just running through the downstairs of my house," Ellis said. "They come in one door and go out the other."
Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich Tuesday afternoon said he was hoping to have 90 percent of the statewide primary votes in by 10 p.m. "Now, the one caveat to that is if turnout exceeds my expectations substantially."
Ruedrich said he's been predicting 5,500 Republicans -- long-timers and newbies who registered at the door Tuesday -- might turn out. He said he's heard guesses that the number actually could hit 12,000. But even a 5,500-voter turnout would be 1,000 more than for the last presidential primary in 2004, he said.
At Begich, Democrats divided into precincts and jammed like sardines into classrooms way too small for their numbers. Not everyone who wanted to get in did.
"It was like a Chinese fire drill," said Earl Staninger, a 74-year-old retiree who had planned to back Obama but gave up trying to get his registration changed from independent to Democrat.
"It's too many people for what they planned over there."
Also frustrated was Rich Gallaher, a Republican who found Obama so appealing that he planned to change his registration to Democrat just so he could support the candidate. Gallaher said he also gave up, after spending an hour and a half trying to get to the Muldoon area school from downtown. "I'm really disappointed," he said, adding that he e-mailed the Democratic Party to tell them so.
Among the ones who did wedge their way into Begich school was Sherman Powell, 26, who registered as a Democrat to support Obama.
"We already had a Clinton, and I'm sick and tired of hearing about Vietnam," Powell said. "Obama hasn't been in politics as long as some of these career politicians ... He just seems fresher."
Sitting across from him, Dorothy Wright, 56, was behind Clinton. Health care is one of the reasons why. "Young people aren't covered," Wright said. "Children aren't covered -- elderly."
Mayor Mark Begich gave a short speech and dropped a tantalizing line.
"The days of Young and Stevens are over," said the mayor, who's been touted as a challenger to longtime Sen. Ted Stevens, but hasn't said yet whether he'll actually run or not.
At Begich, an ambulance that was summoned to assist a person with a minor medical condition was delayed about 45 minutes trying to get through crowded DeBarr Road. A person with minor stomach problems was taken to the hospital, but Fire Department spokesman Tom Kempton said things could have been grim if paramedics were responding to a more serious emergency.
"The participation is so overwhelming they've blocked all the fire lanes," Kempton said.
Downtown at the Egan, Romney seemed to be a favorite.
"The rest of 'em are liberal, including John McCain," said R.G. Hohnstein. He said he didn't think Ron Paul was a viable candidate: "It would be like throwing your vote away."
In Muldoon, the lobby of the How How was a mob scene. Lines of District 21 Republicans extended out both doors and cars overflowed all the parking lots in walking distance. The temperature on the electronic sign outside read 5 degrees.
But Anderita Martinez was there to vote for Huckabee.
"Things that concern me are moral issues and financial issues," said Martinez, an evangelical minister who shivered in a doorway.
Ted Moran, a 40-year-old hydrologist, likes Romney. "This is an important election," he said. "Personally, I see a big change in America coming."
Paul's supporters, meanwhile, said they were confident they'd be on top when the night came to an end.
Peter St. Jean, an 18-year-old Paul volunteer from Virginia, manned a table set up to give away campaign paraphernalia. He said he ran out.
"It flew off the table," St. Jean said. "We're very confident it's going to swing for us."