Des Moines, Iowa JoDee Ward, a hospital worker in Garner, intended to vote for Rep. Dick Gephardt in Monday's Democratic caucuses -- until she saw the new ad for Howard Dean highlighting Gephardt's support for spending billions more to secure and reconstruct Iraq. Now she's wavering.
Jay Leavesseur, a hotel manager in Iowa City, has liked Sen. John Edwards. But he's strongly leaning toward Gephardt because he thinks the Missouri congressman has the best chance of winning in Iowa against Dean, who Leavesseur is determined to stop.
Ward and Leavesseur are hardly alone. Despite months of intensive campaigning by the candidates, saturation levels of television advertising and more than 100,000 handwritten letters sent to state residents by Dean supporters, public and private surveys suggest that about a third of Iowans likely to attend the caucuses have not firmly settled on a candidate.
Although that is not an unusually large figure by past standards, the competition for their allegiance has become especially intense because polls show Dean, Gephardt, Edwards and John Kerry increasingly bunched together. And while conversations with dozens of uncommitted voters indicate a steady stream are making their decisions this week, enough said they could remain undecided to leave the outcome uncertain when the caucuses open Monday.
It is voters such as Marie Kamara, a restaurant manager in Buchanan, who have the candidates sweating as the vote approaches. "I think I will be going (to the caucus) not knowing what I am going to do," she said. "Maybe I'll decide at the last minute."
Many of the uncommitted are voters with a figurative pebble in their shoe. However they try, they can't quite get entirely comfortable with the candidate they like the best.
Marc Andelman, who works with the developmentally disabled in Tipton, has been leaning toward Dean. But he's having second thoughts after seeing an ad from an independent group highlighting the support the former governor received from the National Rifle Assn. during his campaigns in Vermont.
"I want to check if that is really true before I commit to him," Andelman said.
Kurt Schlawin, a chemical engineer in Muscatine, has been impressed by Edwards. "I just like his personality; the way that he has run a campaign where he's not attacking the other candidates," Schlawin said. "He really has stated his message the best."
But Schlawin is "going back and forth" because he's worried that Dean may be a stronger candidate against President Bush.
The campaigns divide these uncommitted voters into two camps: those who are truly undecided and those who lean toward a contender, but might change their mind.
Both public and private polls estimate the truly undecided near 10 percent, though that number appears to be shrinking daily. The larger group are the leaners -- most of the campaigns think those who could still be dislodged from their choice represents about one-fourth of the electorate.
Combined, that accounts for roughly one-third of the likely voters. And that's more than enough to tip the race, with the most recent polls showing Dean, Gephardt and Kerry now vying for first place, and Edwards only a step behind.
Up for grabs
The polls also have shown that as a group, these voters are not much different from those who have firmly made a pick, whether measured in terms of gender, ideology or partisanship. And none of the four leading candidates appears to hold a significant advantage with those still up for grabs.
For instance, among those who told The Times Poll last week that they were not firmly committed to their first pick in Iowa, the second choices were clustered closely together. Dean drew 25 percent, Edwards 20 percent, Gephardt 19 percent and Kerry 18 percent.
Interviews with voters who termed themselves undecided or willing to switch in The Times Poll also suggested there is no silver-bullet argument or tactic likely to stampede them toward one candidate or another.
Ward, the hospital worker from Garner, said her support for Gephardt was shaken when she saw Dean's new ad on the war with Iraq. "I am probably still going to go with Gephardt, but I could very possibly be swayed because I didn't realize that Gephardt was pushing in Iraq so much, wanting to spend money on that," she said.
But the same ad pushed Schlawin away from Dean. "I think the effort should still be focused on going after President Bush," he said.
The Edwards and Kerry campaigns argue that there's a good chance the remaining undecideds will tilt in their directions. They reason that because Dean and Gephardt dominated the early campaigning in Iowa, they are like incumbents in the race. And most voters undecided this close to a vote usually break away from the incumbent.
But Ed Reilly, Gephardt's pollster, said the demographic similarity between the committed and uncommitted voters made it likely the remaining undecideds would divide about the same as those who have already made up their mind.
"I think the big moves (among voters) are done," he said. "I think we are sort of locked into a bandwidth now that is not likely to change significantly."