- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2007

DES MOINES, Iowa — Forget the polls. Voters from across Iowa insist that the Democratic caucus here is a wide-open race.

Iowans, who are showing up in record numbers for the nonstop visits from presidential hopefuls, plan to take their time before deciding who to cast their vote for in the Jan. 14 caucus, and they”re interested in more than just the three front-runners.

“I’m still looking at the menu,” said Julie Reeves, a small-business owner and Democratic voter from Oskaloosa.

Others from here to Iowa City say they are starting to seriously study the candidates and that they are open to anyone emerging the victor, even a certain former vice president.

“Until we’ve met them two or three times face to face and talk to them, we aren’t sure,” said Nick Johnson, a former Federal Communications Commission commissioner who now teaches at the University of Iowa. “Between now and the January caucus, a lot can happen. Who stumbles and falls, who appears that nobody has even thought of.”

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has a narrow lead in most Iowa polls, followed by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, who each were in Iowa last week.

Also in the Hawkeye State were Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. These candidates — long in experience but in single digits in the polls — did not attract the same crowds as the front-runners but won praise from voters statewide and made headlines on the local news each night.

Voters also said they are considering New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, below the three front-runners but gaining traction in Iowa. Trailing candidates Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska had little discernible support.

Several Democrats said if former Vice President Al Gore jumped into the race this fall, his experience and passion would trump the others.

“I’m keeping an open mind,” said Linda Carillo, who works at a University of Iowa clinic as a diet clerk. “I’ve only met Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Biden so far.”

The state’s prominence in the nominating process allows everyday Iowans to get face time with the person who might be the next president.

“Only in Iowa does this happen: You all show up in someone’s back yard [when] you’ve got 1,000 better things to do than talking to some guy from another state running for president,” Mr. Biden said in Iowa City, suggesting he has the right “depth and breadth and knowledge.”

Anyone who relies on polls doesn’t understand the Iowa caucus, said Mike Hanna, a union member and former Mahaska County chair.

“Iowa is not designed to select a presidential candidate,” said Mr. Hanna, a probable Edwards supporter. “We’re designed to get the big number of candidates down to a manageable three of four.”

Mrs. Clinton may lead today, “but what the polls say in the future, it’s anyone’s guess,” he said. “I just don’t buy locked up. It’s just like, were the Twins supposed to win the World Series in ‘87? No. It will be over when it’s over.”

Former President Bill Clinton skipped the caucus in his first election in 1992 because Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa ran for president, but he made sure to ask Iowans to turn out for his wife.

“I don’t know that I understand it entirely, but one thing I do know is: you don’t get any votes no matter how well you are doing in the polls, unless somebody shows up, hangs around and hangs in there for you,” he said in Des Moines. “So what I’m here to do is to ask you to do that for Hillary.”

Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama told Iowans that they understand the importance of the caucus.

“I am so impressed at how seriously all of you take your responsibility here in Iowa to help us pick the next president,” she said, adding: “Your responsibility is especially heavy this year.”

Mr. Obama said in Keokuk he knows Iowans are “kind of choosy,” and he stood on a front porch in Pella later asking voters to caucus for him.

“If you’re not supporting me, support somebody,” he said. “I’d rather have you support another candidate than stay home. This is too important an election to sit out.”

For each of the candidates, Iowa is crucial.

A deputy Clinton campaign manager suggested in a May memo Mrs. Clinton consider “shifting the focus away from Iowa” and not participate in the caucus. Mrs. Clinton insists she will compete even though it is one of the few states in which she does not hold a solid lead.

Mr. Obama, usually in second place in Iowa polls, is getting record crowds across the state, and is running television ads outlining his biography. Many turning out to see him are first-time voters and college students — groups less likely to brave the bitter winter and caucus on his behalf — but he also attracts independents and even curious Republicans.

Mr. Edwards’ strategists say he must do well in Iowa if he wants to win any other state, especially because he is stuck in third place in most polls, and in fourth place when Mr. Gore is included.

A second place 2004 showing for Mr. Edwards catapulted him to prominence and led to him being chosen as Sen. John Kerry’s running mate, and any of the second-tier candidates could benefit from the same effect in 2008.

Iowans said they are strongly considering a candidate’s electability.

Mike Barker, a hydrostat operator near Keokuk, said he fears Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama might have a hard time getting the right votes in a general elections. “Sadly, I’ve heard people say nasty things about race and about Hillary being a woman,” he said.

James Raines of Oskaloosa agreed: “I’m still not ready for a lady president.”

Marlo Prickett, from outside of Danville, thinks Mrs. Clinton has “so much baggage,” and he is leaning toward Mr. Obama. “You’ve just got to figure out who’s electable,” he said.

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