In Iowa, suddenly it's a race of four

Edwards and Kerry gain, narrowing gap with Dean and Gephardt five days before the caucuses.

Five days before the Iowa caucuses, the race here is suddenly transforming from a two-man contest into a round-robin scramble among four Democratic candidates.

Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt remain locked in close competition for first place. But in an unusual twist, the third and fourth place contenders - John Kerry and John Edwards - are showing new signs of momentum, dramatically shrinking the gap between all four men.

While the growing competitiveness reflects an inevitable last-minute tightening, other dynamics are at work as well that show how unusually fluid the race has become - and how vulnerable front-runner Dean remains.

To be sure, much of the contest at this stage may come down to turnout, where Dr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt hold a clear advantage, given Gephardt's union support and Dean's legions of volunteers. But the race is also hinging on the state's undecided voters, among whom Mr. Kerry and Mr.

Edwards seem to be having a bigger impact. Both men have gotten last-minute boosts from endorsements - Edwards from The Des Moines Register, and Kerry from the wife of the governor. Both may also be benefiting from an underdog appeal.

At the same time, some Iowans seem to be having second thoughts about front-runner Dean, who turned in a lackluster debate performance in Des Moines on Sunday, and who has been under attack from his rivals for weeks.

Although the number of undecided voters has been steadily shrinking - now down to 12 percent - as many as 4 in 10 likely caucusgoers say they remain open to changing their minds. As a result, many longtime observers believe the race is even closer than it appears.

"There's a lot of undecided folks, and a lot of folks that say they've chosen a candidate but would be willing to be swayed," says Gordon Fischer, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. "I really think the front-runner is 'undecided.' "

War diminishes as an issue

One factor that may be contributing to Kerry and Edwards's rise is a shift in the backdrop of issues surrounding the campaign - and in particular, the diminishing centrality of the Iraq war.

For most of the campaign, the war dominated town halls and kaffeeklatsches here, boosting Dean and hindering his three main opponents, all of whom voted in favor of the Iraq resolution. Kerry especially seemed dogged by the issue, struggling repeatedly to explain his vote to Democratic audiences.

But in the wake of the capture of Saddam Hussein, the war has receded somewhat from the campaign trail. Noting that his candidate has gone for days without encountering a question on the war, one Democratic aide concludes that it's a combination of factors: "The war is less on people's minds right now," and more important, "people who are undecided are not basing their vote on the war."

In many ways, the focus has shifted away from foreign policy toward domestic concerns - particularly the economy and jobs, an area where Dean has less of an advantage over his rivals. And while every candidate is now attacking "special interests" as part of their stump speech, Edwards and Kerry are hitting that issue with unusual zeal, focusing on the clout of lobbyists in Washington.

The top concern on many voters' minds, however, has less to do with policy than politics - and the candidates' chances of beating President Bush. "What [Iowa Democrats] are most interested in is electability," says Mr. Fischer. And while there's a case to be made for each candidate, he adds, no one has staked out a clear - or lasting - advantage on the issue. "Electability's very mercurial," he says. "It's a very difficult thing to figure out."

But can he win?

In particular, the question of Dean's electability has come to dominate much of the race here. Although many of the former Vermont governor's supporters regard him as the strongest of all the candidates - seeing him as a fighter who would fearlessly take on Mr. Bush - less committed voters worry that he is too prone to gaffes and misstatements.

"Howard Dean's shooting himself in the foot every day," says Leanne Kennard, a retired teacher from West Des Moines, attending a Gephardt rally.

But while Ms. Kennard was until recently planning on supporting Gephardt, she's also become unhappy with Gephardt's attacks on Dean. She shakes her head over a mailing she received from the Gephardt campaign, with "huge pictures" of an angry-looking Dean. "I'm thinking strongly about John Edwards," she concludes.

Indeed, as more and more voters complain about the negativity of the race, Edwards may stand to benefit. He has for the most part sought to remain above the fray, refraining from attacking his rivals in favor of what he tells voters is an "optimistic" campaign.

Watching Edwards address a crowd of more than 100 people at Baker's Court restaurant in rural Storm Lake, Beverlee Bell says she likes his "energy and his positiveness." She was already leaning toward supporting the North Carolina senator, but now says she'll definitely caucus for him.

Ms. Bell, like other voters here, expresses a discomfort with Dean, saying he reminds her of "a liberal George Bush."

But in describing what they like about Edwards, many also use phrases similar to those Dean supporters use to describe their candidate - "honest," "plain-spoken," and "hasn't been in Washington for a million years." It's a reaction that suggests Edwards could emerge as a strong Dean alternative. Likewise, Edwards has also adopted certain catchphrases from Dean - referring to his campaign as a "movement" and stressing his outsider appeal.

Still, as Bell notes, he faces a tough race. "He has a big hill to climb," she admits.

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