As Iowa heads to caucuses, undecideds will make their mark

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 1, 2012 

AMES, Iowa — Shifts happen in the 48 hours before Iowa caucuses, and Sunday it was clear the outcome of the nation's first presidential voting Tuesday depends on a huge army of undecided, wavering Iowa caucus-goers.

Forty-one percent said they could still be persuaded to support another candidate, while only 51 percent say their mind is made up, according to a Des Moines Register Iowa poll taken Tuesday through Friday.

McClatchy interviews with voters throughout the state found they tend to like something about all six major GOP candidates, but there's also usually something that makes them uneasy.

It could be Mitt Romney's changes in positions, Ron Paul's foreign policy, Rick Perry's gaffes, Newt Gingrich's history of controversy or a sense that Rick Santorum can't beat President Barack Obama.

Many voters are deciding by spending this holiday weekend seeing candidates. "It's such an opportunity to see candidates up close. There's nothing like it," said Maribeth Waldman, a Boone small business owner.

This state of uncertainty has characterized the entire campaign. Just since Thanksgiving, polls have shown momentum for former Gingrich, the former House Speaker; Paul, a Texas congressman; Romney, former Massachusetts governor, and Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator.

"Republican caucus-goers are looking for that perfect candidate who doesn't exist," said Timothy Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "They see a chance to beat an incumbent president, one whose policies they absolutely do not like. So they don't want to make a mistake."

The people at the rallies and town halls have several reasons for being uncertain.

Often there's just enough doubt about a candidate to make them wary.

"I'm totally undecided, and I have no idea what's going to tip the balance. I like 90 percent of what Ron Paul believes in," said Peggy Coleman, a Perry substitute teacher. "But I'm scared of his foreign policy. We'd have a weaker military." Paul advocates dramatically reduced U.S. role in foreign affairs.

Sometimes they want to see and study each candidate, which is easy to do since they have been travelling to every niche of the state in recent days.

"I haven't been convinced yet," said Leah Fonua, a Toledo child health care coordinator who went to see Romney in Ames.

Sometimes they're close to a decision, but want to be absolutely sure.

"I'm struggling a little bit between who I want and who is the most electable," said Rachel Coder, an Ames elementary school aide. "I agree a lot with what Perry says, but I don't feel he's going to come out of Iowa in a way that will carry him to (ultimate) victory," she explained.

The maybes have this much in common: They want someone who has solid family values, will lower taxes, provide incentives for private industry to create jobs, and get rid of the 2010 federal health care law, which will require nearly everyone to get coverage by 2014.

What usually gives them pause when considering a candidate is a desire to feel comfortable about their electability.

Santorum gets high marks throughout the state as a standup conservative, for instance, but the electability issue keeps dogging him.

"Santorum is interesting to me," said Don Loy, an agriculture professor at Iowa State University. "But I think Romney's the one who can defeat Obama, and that's what you want."

Santorum had addressed the issue by noting he won two U.S. Senate terms in a diverse state (though he badly lost his 2006 re-election bid).

Romney has been trying to win the electability issue by acting like he's already running against Obama. His speeches are usually rip-roaring rants against the president and his policies.

The Romney camp believes, as voters get serious about making a choice, electability will tip the balance their way.

"People are starting to make the decision in a serious way. That's why we'll do well," said David Kochel, Romney's top Iowa strategist.

Yet Romney is no shoo-in. Though his poll numbers have been steady, they've stayed in the 20 to 25 percent range in Iowa, and among Republicans nationwide.

There's still a big level of distrust among conservatives. Romney championed the 2006 Massachusetts health care law requiring nearly everyone in that state to obtain coverage, the model for the federal mandate Republican voters despise.

Even at Romney rallies, the crowd is filled with doubters. "He does flip-flop," explained Georgia Romp, an Ames retiree, at a Romney event. "I just don't like him that much," added homemaker Glenda Mathre.

Nearby, Janet Mortvedt, a Story City auditor, ran down the list: She's wary of Romney "because of the health care stuff." Gingrich? "The baggage. I don't trust him." Santorum? "I don't know enough about him."

But on a cold night in Ames, she did come to hear Romney, and she explained why the caucus outcome is so hard to handicap.

"I don't feel strongly about any one person. I do like little pieces of each," she said. "When I pick, it'll be from an inside feeling."

ON THE WEB

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