Political veterans, wannabes and newcomers from both sides of the political divide gathered around the state Tuesday evening to take the first steps of the 2010 election season.

Party faithful convened at caucus meetings to elect voting delegates for upcoming county and state conventions — the gatherings during which office hopefuls are narrowed and ballots determined.

Democratic and Republican leaders had predicted record turnouts for the meetings, prognostications that seemed to hold up, though the atmosphere of the meetings varied widely.

The Layton district of former House Majority Leader Kevin Garn was a blowout, with some 1,400 packing Layton High School.

Garn resigned recently after announcing he had been in a hot tub nude with a 15-year-old girl more than two decades ago and later paid her $150,000 to keep the incident quiet.

Five Layton residents are vying for his seat, but Republicans who attended the District 16 Caucus meeting took part for a variety of reasons.

Some said they were there to support one of the five candidates, while others specifically attended because they support or are campaigning against Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

Christy Jacobs said she attended because she wants to get more involved.

"I care more about the local stuff," as opposed to national issues, Jacobs said. "I've been disappointed in the selections on the ballots."

At a Provo caucus gathering, a straw poll of attendees gave Bennett a slight edge over challenger Mike Lee, 38-34, with other candidates for the position scoring in single digits.

A little more than 100 people turned out for the Provo caucus, which had added interest because all three of the Republican candidates for House District 63 live in the precinct boundaries.

Dean Sanpei, Dawn Frandsen and David Acheson all had filed for the election, but Acheson announced at the precinct meeting that he would not be running. Sanpei and Frandsen hope to win the seat now held by Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo, who will be serving the next three years as a mission president The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is not seeking re-election.

In the Salt Lake Democratic stronghold of District 25, about 300 party faithful had the opportunity to hear from some new voices and say goodbye to others.

Popular Rep. Chris Johnson, D-Salt Lake, announced her plans not to seek a third term near the end of the just-completed 2010 legislative session. But she appeared at East High School on Tuesday night to issue an emotional thank you to her supporters.

"You all, by electing me to two terms, have allowed me to be as brazen and vocal and as arbitrary to the status quo as possible," Johnson said. "Because anything less would cause me to not be authentic."

Johnson, who was an outspoken advocate of equal rights and environmental issues as a legislator, issued a call to action to attendees before they got down to the work of the evening, choosing precinct delegates to upcoming party conventions.

"We're seeing an Obama backlash that is toxic to free agency, toxic to our Constitution and toxic to what we believe as Democrats," she said. "And it's imperative that we're vocal and we stand up and we're angry about it, because it's not acceptable."

On Capitol Hill, it was a rare chance for Democrats to outnumber Republicans — something the roughly 175 people attending the caucus meeting hope becomes commonplace in the years to come.

If that is to happen, the party will need more people like Chris Miskimins, an independent who in recent years has found himself migrating to the left.

"I've been so motivated by the tea party stuff and with Matheson voting against health care. I've got to start taking some action," said Miskimins, who took on a leadership role in his Salt Lake City precinct Tuesday. "The discourse has gone downhill so fast. It's all 'Crossfire' now. It used to be you would learn something. We need to bring it back to a place where we can have a conversation."

At one point, the mention of Rep. Jim Matheson's name earned a chorus of boos from caucus-goers, who were displeased with the Democrat's nay vote Sunday.

A local movement by a group of Republicans calling themselves the Patrick Henry Caucus may have brought out an additional Democrat or two Tuesday.

The group sponsored 24 state's rights bills during the 2010 session, costing taxpayers some $60,000, said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake.

"It would be laughable if they didn't take themselves so seriously," Chavez-Houck said.

Voting Precinct 1230 in West Valley City might be Bennett's worst nightmare. In fact, it may be the worst nightmare of any incumbent.

Karen Barton was elected as its delegate to the Republican State Convention at its caucus Tuesday because she had little good to say about Bennett.

"He's been there long enough. It's time for him to go. He's the king of pork," she said as the 14 others attending the caucus nodded their heads in agreement.

No one at the Precinct 1230 meeting defended Bennett — or any other incumbent.

They even questioned their delegates to the GOP county convention to ensure they support term limits, and they're looking to throw out incumbents.

Hunter High School, where Precinct 1230 met, was one of few places where Democrats and Republican met literally across the hall from one another — about 100 Democrats in the cafeteria and 300 Republicans in the auditorium.

"I liked it better when we met in homes. There were peanuts and candy," said Byron Stone, one of the Republicans in Precinct 1230. "You could also hear each other," he said amid the noise of many meetings happening at the same time in the auditorium.

Contributing: Arthur Raymond, Joseph M. Dougherty, Aaron Falk, Marc Haddock