DUBUQUE, Iowa — “We got beat by the nuns,” said Carol Petrick, a disappointed supporter of Howard Dean as it became evident that her candidate was going to get whipped by John Kerry when the votes were recorded at Dubuque’s Precinct 13 caucus.

For all the talk about how Dean would pull new voters out for the caucuses, only a dozen people turned up to support the former Vermont governor who until last night was widely viewed as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A few more showed up for former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who had until recent days been seen as Dean’s most serious competitor in Iowa. But when the final tally was taken, neither Dean nor Gephardt had enough supporters in the Windsor Park apartment complex’s community room to meet the threshold for winning delegates from Precinct 13.

Instead, the caucus was dominated by supporters of Kerry. While a number of those who caucused for Kerry were members of the Sisters of St. Francis religious order, which is headquartered on this heavily Catholic city’s north side, the reality was that support for the Massachusetts senator ran broad and deep in the working-class neighborhood. In that sense, Precinct 13 proved to be a microcosm for all of Iowa, where Kerry scored a major victory in Monday night’s first-in-the-nation caucus voting.

“This looks like the start of something big,” said Kerry backer Clark Zivojnovich, a union electrician who delighted in noting that most of the people caucusing in Precinct 13 wore white stickers that read, “I’m standing for John Kerry — He’s Fighting for Us.”

“People are starting to realize that John Kerry’s the only one who can beat George Bush,” added Zivojnovich. “And the one thing that matters most to Democrats in Iowa is beating Bush.”

While Gephardt and Dean beat each other to pieces in a bitter battle for the support of Iowa Democrats, Kerry surged by arguing that, as a decorated Vietnam veteran, he was best positioned to take on Bush in a fall race that could turn on national security issues.

Second place in Precinct 13 went to the rapidly-rising campaign of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who presented himself as an optimistic populist who was more interested in talking about economic justice than in tearing down his opponents.

“Here Gephardt and Dean were supposed to be the frontrunners, and they just collapsed. It’s all Kerry and Edwards,” mused Tom Tully, the chairman of this one caucus out of the almost 1,993 that were held across Iowa Monday night.

Precinct 13 was relatively representative of the rest of Iowa. Kerry stunned pollsters and pundits by winning 38 percent of the vote at caucuses across the state, while Edwards secured an equally unexpected 32 percent. Dean mustered only 18 percent. And Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, secured just 10 percent and began making arrangements to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who campaigned aggressively in Iowa, won just 1 percent of the recorded votes, as many of his backers threw their support to Edwards as part of a last-minute deal between the candidates.

The caucus in Precinct 13 followed the same pattern as caucuses across Iowa. As the 6:30 p.m. starting time approached, 145 Democrats from the working class neighborhood followed signs with arrows directing them to the caucus room. Tom Tully reminding everyone that, under the arcane rules of the state party, a candidate had to have the support of 15 percent of those present to win delegates to the county convention — the next step in naming Iowa’s delegation to this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Boston. He then pulled out a calculator and informed the assembled Democrats that, on the basis of last night’s turnout in Precinct 13, a candidate would need 21.75 votes to secure delegates.

Tully rounded that number upward to 22 and announced that it was time for everyone to divide into candidate groups. There were so many Kerry backers that they had to move into an adjoining hallway, which they filled. Inside the room, it became clear that only Edwards had met the threshold, although Gephardt’s backers — many of them union members and retirees — were close.

That’s when the lobbying began.

Sister Gwen Hennessey, a veteran peace and social-justice activist, quickly led the nine Kucinich backers into an alliance with the Edwards backers — who agreed to allow Sister Gwen to fill one of their delegate slots. A Dean backer made a last-minute ideological appeal to the Kucinich group, noting that Dean and Kucinich had been outspoken critics of the war in Iraq while Edwards voted for the October, 2002, Congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to wage the war: “Are you sure you want to go for Edwards? Dean is antiwar,” she said. But the Kucinich backers, noting that Edwards had echoed at least some of their man’s populist anti-corporate message, stuck with the North Carolinian.

Most of the Gephardt backers went with Edwards, as well. And the Dean backers, many of whom admitted that they were stunned by the low turnout for their candidate, split among the Kerry and Edwards camps. “I’m really surprised,” said Anastasia Bissell, a librarian who proudly wore her blue Dean sticker. “There were so many people at the Dean rallies. But Kerry had Kennedy,” she added, referring to Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, an icon among Iowa liberals, who campaigned in Dubuque at Kerry’s side.

Bissell complained that the other candidates, and the media, had been brutal in their treatment of Dean. But, as she moved over to cast her lot with the Kerry group, Bissell was already reconciling herself to the reality of a caucus night that had not turned out as she had expected. “I do think that Kerry is electable,” she said. “And I do like the fact that he was a war hero in Vietnam who then came home and opposed that war. I think he understands that we need to get our troops out of Iraq, and that’s really important.”

A moment later, the final vote of Precinct 13 was recorded: 91 for Kerry to 54 for Edwards. That meant Kerry would have seven delegates to the county convention, while four would be counted for Edwards.

The Precinct 13 caucus goers then voted unanimously for a resolution that declared “President Bush led the United States into war in Iraq on the basis of a morally bankrupt policy of preemptive military action against states on his military list” and called for turning over responsibility for stabilizing Iraq to the United Nations. They gave equally overwhelming support to resolutions condemning the development of new nuclear weapons, supporting universal health care and favoring the interests of family farmers over those of corporate agribusiness.

“We may not have won the contest among the candidates, but we won the issues,” said Sister Gwen, the Kucinich backer who ended up caucusing with Edwards.

Anastasia Bissell, the Dean backer who finished up in the Kerry camp, was equally philosophical. “I think this is probably what the founders had in mind for America — this kind of consensus building. People come into a room, and we all disagree. But some of us give up something to achieve a greater goal. And, of course, the greater goal for all of us Democrats is to beat George Bush.”