The winners of the Iowa caucuses had been declared, I had filed a small story on the caucus for the morning paper, and as I rounded the final corner on my walk home, a lonesome darkness seemed to settle over the streets of Des Moines.

Every fourth year Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses draw the white-hot spotlight of national and international media. For a young reporter like me it was easy to get drunk on the feeling of being at the center of the world's attention.

The days afterward would still be enjoyable, yes, but in the way a reveler enjoys a New Year's Day hangover.

It was only this past spring that I was a direction-less freelance writer living in Forest Grove, where my wife was in her final year of optometry school at Pacific University and where I was offered part-time work writing for the News-Times.

After she graduated we wanted to move nearer our families in the Midwest, but we were as surprised as anyone when we landed in Iowa during caucus season that I was hired by The Des Moines Register.

'Every four years it's the coolest paper to work for in the country,' one of my newsroom neighbors told me soon after I started.

Iowans are the first in the nation to declare their picks for the Democratic and Republican nominees. Candidates spend weeks, months and sometimes the better part of a year traversing the state shaking hands.

A commotion came from behind my desk one recent afternoon as an entourage of campaign staff marched down a hall through the newsroom with Sen. Barack Obama who, like the many candidates before him, stopped in to ask the members of the editorial board for their coveted endorsement. The Secret Service agents assigned to protect him were close enough to have easily been hit with a spitball.

'How you doing?' Obama asked, seeming to look at me, then adding to no one in particular, 'Hey, everybody,' and waving.

Under different circumstances I might have asked him to sign a copy of his latest book, but reporters in newsrooms like the Register's must mask their political persuasions.

I wrote all of two stories related to the caucuses, one of which I would have been wise to turn down if I weren't such a sucker for briefly playing the part of a national political reporter.

Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and former Sen. John Edwards were giving speeches at a birthday party and fund-raiser for an Iowa congressman the weekend before the caucuses. The event was three hours away in Cedar Rapids on a night forecast to have freezing rain and snow. I was told to keep my story short.

Still, I relished every minute, from my brief interviews with Biden and Edwards in which I asked utterly obvious questions - 'Do you want the congressman's endorsement?' - to finding the small article buried deep within the paper the next day.

Caucus night finally arrived and for my second and final caucus story I went to one of the Republican precincts in downtown Des Moines, where I was following a couple from Sudan who had recently become U.S. citizens.

Neither Barnaba Danga, 45, nor his wife, Esther Gonyo, had ever cast a vote in their lives. Though their limited English skills presented some challenges, they were thrilled just to be taking part in a democracy.

They were given bright orange slips of paper and asked to write the name of their favorite candidate. The husband wrote his own name, and then, when this was pointed out, added simply, 'John.' The wife left hers blank.

His was counted as a vote for Sen. McCain, the only John running as a Republican. Hers was officially recorded as 'undecided.'

Back at the newsroom that night the energy of the months of campaign coverage reached a crescendo.

For the candidates there were speeches to make and then flights to catch to New Hampshire. For the local reporters who had been following the candidates around the state there were finally results to report and sleep to catch up on.

But for a young reporter like me, who saw only a small piece of the action, climbing in bed that night felt like leaving a party before I was ready for it to be over.

Gunnar Olson covered business for the News-Times for much of 2007. He's now a reporter for The Des Moines Register.

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