INDIANOLA, Iowa — Democrats enter the fall campaign with one question hanging over their party: Can anyone catch Hillary Clinton?
The New York senator has combined the party’s most popular brand name with a muscular, disciplined campaign to take a commanding position almost everywhere. She's opened double-digit leads over her nearest rivals in national polls, as well as in early voting states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and California. If she runs the tables there, the nomination almost certainly will be hers.
If . . . .
Yet in Iowa, the state that will kick off the voting in precinct caucuses one night in January, she's still in a three-person race with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
And history suggests that anything can happen there in the final weeks as more voters tune in. At this stage four years ago, Howard Dean led in the Iowa polls, only to collapse as voting neared, and John Kerry trailed in a distant third place, only to go on to win Iowa and the nomination.
“This thing is just starting,” said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. “It’s like the gun just went off.”
While Biden and his rivals clash over who has the better plan to get out of Iraq or who'd do more on health care, Iowa voters tend to see the top candidates as similar on the hot-button issues.
Rather than making their voting decisions on issues, then, voters are signaling in interviews that they’re more interested in whether a candidate could win the general election and how he or she would govern — an approach that could decide whom they support and whom they reject in coming weeks.
Most Iowa Democrats interviewed at random in recent days like or admire Clinton. Many think her experience in Washington as a first lady and senator would give her an edge in pushing the Democratic agenda through Congress and into law.
“She has the experience and knows what it takes to get things done. She is the best chance we have to get universal health care,” said Cindy Forbes of Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines.
Reminded that Clinton failed to enact health care as first lady, Forbes said that was a plus, not a minus, because it gave her valuable experience in the Washington power game.
But some Iowa Democrats harbor doubts about whether Clinton's political baggage — rekindled by the recent brouhaha over a major contributor — would cost them the general election.
“I’m scared of Hillary. I’m scared she’ll bring out all the critics again, all the talk about all the scandal and all that,” said Bob McNertney of Sioux City. “But I do think she’ll win the nomination. She looks unstoppable.”
Many are also drawn to Obama and his lofty appeal to more civil politics.
“I love listening to him speak,” said Sandra Johnson, a factory worker from Thompson, a small town near the Minnesota border. “This is the third time I’ve heard him. He makes you feel like things really could change.”
Though Obama's been in the Senate for only three years, Johnson thinks that gives him a fresh, less jaded approach. “Maybe we need someone who hasn’t been in there to shake things up.”
But a lot of people think he’s too inexperienced to be president.
“It’s not his time,” said Cindy Forbes of Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines. “He’s not experienced enough. He’ll be president someday, but not now.”
And many prefer Edwards and his give-‘em-hell populism. They’re eager to fight the Republicans and big business at every opportunity, especially as they watch the Democratic Congress fail to stand up to President Bush and end the war.
“He can bring the Democratic Party back to its roots, for the people, not the DC elites,” said Lauri Lumm-Usher of Marion, a suburb of Cedar Rapids.
Compromising with corporate America in the Clinton-led 1990s hurt working Americans on issues from health care to trade, she said. Edwards would reverse that.
Yet some Democratic voters are weary of Edwards' talk about his humble roots, a message undercut by a $400 haircut and a 28,000-square-foot home.
“I liked him until he said he was a son of a mill worker and rose from nothing,” said Dann Johnson, a farmer from Thompson and Sandra Johnson’s husband. “That was like saying a mill worker is nothing. That really turned me off.”
Finally, all tend to like Biden and rest of the field — Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
But few Iowa Democrats think any of them can win the nomination.