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With Occupy activists as wild card, endgame nears for GOP in Iowa; Candidates facing threat of protests

Already they have interrupted Michele Bachmann and drawn a withering put-down from Newt Gingrich as "all noise, no thought."

Now, to the dismay of Iowa Republicans, Occupy activists here are vowing to expand their protests as GOP presidential hopefuls converge on the state that speaks first in the race for the party's presidential nomination.

"The 99 percent have woken up, and we're not going to take it anymore," Occupy activist Stephen Toothman, of Des Moines, said as an advance guard met Tuesday to decide which candidates to target in the coming week.

Hundreds of Occupy activists from at least 10 states were participating in a "People's Caucus" near the State Capitol to plot activities between now and next Tuesday's Iowa caucuses. The activists are promising to interrupt candidates at events and camp out at their Iowa campaign offices. They say they want to change the political dialogue. Activists say mass arrests are possible.

Organizers are encouraging activists who live in Iowa to show up on caucus night and vote "no preference" as a protest, but they say they have no plans to interfere with the voting itself. Nonetheless, state Republican Party officials have instructed precinct leaders to report any disruption to police and the party.

Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn criticized Occupy activists for targeting the caucuses. He said he worried that most of the problems would be caused by those from out of state. "It would be an absolute shame if outside agitators ruin the Iowa caucus experience," he said.

Occupy activists, who came from as far away as New York City and Seattle, said the caucuses were largely meaningless because the parties and candidates were overly influenced by wealthy special interests that led them to ignore key issues.

"The caucuses are really a statement as to where the nation is as a whole. I think this occupation is really a statement that they are dissatisfied with all the choices that we've been given," said Ivan Burghart, an activist from St. Louis who mingled with others at the group's Des Moines headquarters.

Occupy Des Moines organizer Jess Mazour, 24, said protesters wanted candidates to address issues ranging from campaign finance reform to college debt to the home foreclosure crisis. She said the weeklong set of actions marked a new phase for the nationwide Occupy movement, and would be a test of whether activists could flex political muscle as one group.

The group insists that it will practice nonviolence, and activists were going through civil disobedience training Tuesday. Still, police fear that scuffles could break out between protesters and frustrated supporters of candidates at political events.

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