Iowa's many undecided voters hold the key to caucuses

With the first major test for candidates days away, both party nominations are still wide open.

Joan Tucker is down to five possible candidates. She's ruled out Hillary Rodham Clinton – "She has less opportunity to win" because of her negatives – but when Ms. Tucker attends her local Democratic caucus this Thursday, she's open to backing Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, or John Edwards.

"Usually I know long in advance who I'm supporting," says Ms. Tucker, a retired librarian from Iowa City waiting in a packed junior high gymnasium for Senator Obama to appear. But this time, "there are just too many good choices."

Tucker is hardly alone in her indecision. Three days before the Iowa caucuses, the first nomination test of the 2008 presidential campaign, polls show more than 1 in 5 likely caucusgoers of both parties is either undecided or could change from their current choice.

With both parties' Iowa contests too close to call, these voters may well hold the key to the outcome. The candidates know that. Most are crisscrossing the state in a frenzy of final pleadings, hopefulthat they'll hit a sweet spot with enough undecideds to propel themselves into the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary in a strong position.

"It's been decades since we've had this wide open a race," says Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames.

On the Republican side, 11 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers are undecided, with another 10 percent "soft" in support of a candidate, according to a poll by the American Research Group (ARG) taken Dec. 26-28. Among Democrats, 7 percent of likely caucusgoers are undecided, and 14 percent are soft supporters.

Dick Bennett, president of ARG, says this level of indecision so close to caucus day is typical. Voters who attend caucuses – which involve more effort than just casting a ballot – are not casual observers of politics. They read, they attend rallies, they weigh their choices. What's atypical is that the undecideds are not dominated by women this time.

"The difference is, women have decided for Hillary Clinton," says Mr. Bennett, who notes that 63 percent of the New York senator's supporters in Iowa are female. The bad news for Senator Clinton, he adds, is that the undecideds tend to be choosing between Senator Obama and former Senator Edwards.

The average of major polls in Iowa taken between Dec. 20 and 28, as tabulated by Realclearpolitics.com, shows a three-way tie in the Democratic field – with Clinton at 29.8 percent, Edwards at 26.5 percent, and Obama at 26.3 percent.

As for the Republicans, the Realclearpolitics.com average shows former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (30.5 percent) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (28.5) in a statistical tie for the lead. Duking it out for third place are former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee (10.8 percent) and Sen. John McCain of Arizona (10.3 percent).

In interviews with undecided voters at several campaign events around Iowa in the past few days, the Monitor found people eager to make the right choice – that is, someone who is both right for the times and who can win next November.

Some are first-time caucusgoers. Lorrie Stringham of Guthrie Center, Iowa, a technician for Iowa Telecom, goes into a Clinton event at a junior high gymnasium carrying a sign boosting her local union.

"I'm concerned there's no healthcare benefits for retirees," says Ms. Stringham, a former Republican who switched to independent. Her friend is coaxing her to caucus for Clinton, but Stringham still isn't sure if Clinton is "the one." She's deciding between Edwards, who she calls "down to earth," and Clinton, who she says "is that way, too, sometimes."

Clinton finishes her speech. Did she close the deal? "It's getting closer!" Stringham laughs. "I'm all about the economy. I'm a middle-class person and I'm making way more money than I was making 10 years ago, but it doesn't feel like it."

She wants Clinton to "fix the economy," and "make America America again." But, even if Clinton does win Stringham's support, work could keep her from caucusing.

Another maybe for Clinton at the Guthrie Center event is Leanna Plagman, who has also never caucused before. Her motivation: "I have a son-in-law in Iraq, and I want him home." For now, she's leaning toward Edwards, but she's also considering Obama and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, in addition to Clinton.

At an appearance by Mr. Romney at a diner in Newton, Iowa, on Saturday, most of those in attendance seemed solidly behind the former governor of Massachusetts. One undecided GOP caucusgoer, Jean Ferguson, a registered nurse from Newton, says it's between Romney and Mr. Huckabee.

"My main issue that's driving my vote is life," she says.

Both Romney and Huckabee oppose abortion rights, but she is hesitating over Romney, because he came to his abortion position just in the past few years.

Still, "I love, I love that he wants to strengthen the family," she says. "I love that he has all these kids that are all married and have all these grandchildren. To me, what shapes an individual is their home life, and so strengthening the families, trying to decrease all these children out of wedlock, to me that's a big issue."

On Huckabee, Ms. Ferguson says she's seen the ads slamming him for raising taxes in Arkansas, "but if he was doing that to improve the schools, that's a big plus," she says.

She sees both Huckabee and Romney as electable next November.

Another uncommitted caucusgoer checking out Romney, Leroy Davis of Newton, Iowa, says he liked the ex-governor's response to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but that he's also open to both Huckabee and Thompson.

"I'll probably go listen to Thompson tonight," says Mr. Davis, who is retired from the trucking business. "But I've followed him over the years, and he's always voted kind of like I'd want someone to vote. I think he's an honest guy."

This late in the game, pre-Iowa, appearances by candidates are aimed mostly at rallying supporters – and making sure they actually show up on caucus night. But there are also the "political tourists" who come just out of curiosity.

"It's free entertainment," says Marilee Doane of Newton.

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