DES MOINES, Iowa — Voters here say it's tough to distinguish between the platforms of the Democrats running for president. So the hopefuls are downplaying their differences and instead, each is promising to be the most electable of the bunch.
Sen. Barack Obama tells crowds he can win Mississippi in a general election; for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the Southwest will no longer be red terrain; and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. says Kentucky would be up for grabs if he is the 2008 Democratic nominee.
Former Sen. John Edwards told The Washington Times yesterday he can win Tennessee and his home state of North Carolina, and says he would have captured them in 2004 had he been the presidential nominee and not the vice-presidential candidate.
"These are all places that I can compete and win," he said aboard his campaign bus, adding Iowa to the mix. "I'm clearly the strongest general election candidate."
The Democrats hoping to topple New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from her front-runner status have been taking a tougher tone lately in questioning her electability.
Republicans reinforce that notion, saying that having Mrs. Clinton on the ticket would drive "anti-Hillary" turnout and help them hold onto House seats and maybe even win back some districts lost last year.
"She evokes strong emotions on both sides," Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said earlier this year. "A lot of Republican voters would be just petrified at the fact she'd be president."
"Hillary is too polarizing," agreed Siri Larson of Ames yesterday, noting she supports Mr. Obama, of Illinois.
Mrs. Clinton, the former first lady, often tells voters she differs little from her challengers.
"I'm running a campaign right now not just to win the nomination but to win the general election," Mrs. Clinton said at an AFL-CIO labor forum Wednesday in Waterloo, noting the Democrats' similarities.
"The contrast between us and the Republicans could not be more stark," she said. "We're all for universal health care. We have different ways of getting there, but the goal is the same."
Iowa Democrats say they chose Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts because they felt he was their best chance to beat President Bush in 2004, and many say they are more carefully examining the candidates this time around to make sure they can win a general election.
In every corner of the state, voters have far from made up their minds, and say the lines between the candidates are blurry.
"I don't think any one of them would be bad," said Gene Brown of Waterloo. "We just need to get a Democrat in the White House. Electability is a very big concern."
"Edwards is a nice guy, but I don't know if he could win or not," said Max Paulson of Forest City, lamenting of the Democratic field: "If only we could put them all together."
The electability question for Mrs. Clinton often focuses on her sex, while Mr. Obama's race is also considered a factor.
"I don't know if we're ready for a black candidate yet," said Bernadine Fick, a substitute teacher from Onawa.
But Mr. Obama says he would help Democrats be competitive in Southern states such as Mississippi, touting that he can "rebuild the political map."
"We're getting new people involved," he told the AFL-CIO forum. "We're expanding the electorate. I can put in to play some places that haven't been put in play in a long time."
Citing the high population of black voters in Mississippi, he said: "Imagine if Republicans have to go down to Mississippi and spend some money, because right now they can just ignore the South because we give it to them."
Mr. Obama said it is a "mistake" for Democrats to employ an electoral strategy that includes ignoring the South, rural areas and "faith voters." Instead, Democrats should "show up everywhere and organize everywhere," he said.
Mr. Biden, of Delaware, struck a similar chord Wednesday.
"I can win Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia. I can win red states," he said. "I will win 45 percent or more of the vote in 15 of those red states. If you elect a Democratic president without that — you won't be able to implement an agenda that we all want."
Mr. Richardson says although he is not considered a "rock star" like Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama, "It should be about who can win. I'm electable."
Democrats too often nominate "Northeastern" candidates who aren't "broadly based" enough to win "the middle of the country," he said.
"I'm pro gun, and you know that hurts me in other states," he said at the labor forum. "I have the values of the West and the Southwest. I believe I'm a candidate you can proudly back."