WASHINGTON — Whipsawed by an increasingly heated campaign, Democrats in Iowa and other early voting states are closely divided over which of their three top candidates to support, according to a new series of polls for McClatchy and MSNBC.
The surveys suggest that the Democratic race is so close — and hangs on the candidates' resumes and personalities as much as it does on issues — that any of them could win or finish third.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York retains an edge in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but her lead in all three is shrinking compared to earlier surveys.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is close on Clinton's heels in all three states, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is close behind Obama in Iowa but farther back in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
No other candidate for the Democratic nomination comes close — at least not yet — though once the voting starts, things can change fast, and 1 in 5 Democratic voters remains undecided in New Hampshire and 1 in 4 in South Carolina, but only 1 in 10 in Iowa.
"The Democratic race is quite competitive," said Brad Coker, the pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, which conducted the surveys. "We've seen a tightening in Iowa. Obama's gained ground in New Hampshire. And South Carolina is close, as well."
The contest is closest in Iowa, where the voting begins Jan. 3 in town meeting-like precinct caucuses. Clinton has the support of 27 percent of likely caucus attendees, Obama 25 percent, and Edwards 21 percent.
All other candidates were in single digits, not enough to survive a caucus rule that requires support from 15 percent of those attending to win a delegate. If their supporters switch to second-choice candidates, the poll found they'd split evenly among Clinton, Edwards and Obama.
In New Hampshire, Clinton polled 30 percent, Obama 27 percent and Edwards 10 percent.
In South Carolina, Clinton led with 28 percent, Obama had 25 percent and Edwards 18 percent.
The error margin for each state survey was plus or minus five percentage points.
In Nevada, where voters of both parties will hold caucuses on Jan. 19, Clinton led Obama 34-26 percent, with Edwards at 9 percent. This survey, also by Mason-Dixon, was sponsored by the Las Vegas Review Journal, taken Dec. 3-5 and had an error margin of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Clinton's strengths: women, older voters, and those who want experience, call the economy or health care their top issue and want to withdraw from Iraq gradually.
Her weaknesses: young voters and those who rank honesty the top quality in a candidate.
Obama's base: men, younger voters, those who want a new approach to politics, a winner against the Republicans or who call the environment their top concern. His weakness: those who want experience. Edward appeals to Iowans who rank honesty their top concern and those who want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. His weaknesses: men, older voters and those who want to keep at least some troops in Iraq.
A key divide for Democrats is the question of change versus experience.
Nearly one of five Iowa Democrats says the most important trait they're seeking in a nominee is experience. Those voters support Clinton by 10-1 over Obama and by 5-1 over Edwards.
Clinton's advantage on experience was similar or greater in the other states.
"She knows how Washington works," said Sharon Lee, a retired teacher from Ankeny, Iowa. "Obama doesn't have the experience. As a Democrat, I'd rather save him for later."
Yet a competing slice of Democrats — one of five — says the most important quality is change and a new approach to politics.
And "change" voters in Iowa prefer Obama by 2-1 over Clinton and 3-2 over Edwards.
Obama's edge on change was similar in the other two states.
"I really want change, in health care, in Iraq," said Katie Miller, a state employee from Portsmouth, N.H. "I want a new perspective, not politics as usual. He's got fresh new ideas. ... She's part of the old boy network."
Another dividing line is age. Clinton leads among Iowa Democrats older than 50; Obama leads among those younger than 50.
"The rule of thumb is that those over 50 will turn out for a caucus even if there's two feet of snow," Coker said. "On the ground, Clinton will have an easier time turning out her supporters. Obama has a harder task. But if he can figure out how to turn out young people, that is how Obama could win."
COMPLETE POLL RESULTS
Download the surveys in PDF format:
HOW WE POLL
The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was conducted. It isn't a prediction of how people will vote on Election Day.
The Mason-Dixon poll of 400 likely caucus attendees or primary voters in each state was conducted by telephone from Dec. 3-6. Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross section of telephone exchanges. That means that anyone in the state with a phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else, except for people who use cell phones only. Cell phone numbers are not in the exchanges.
The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the correct numbers could be as many as 5 percentage points above the poll's percentage point findings, or as many as 5 percentage points below them. The remaining 5 percent of the time, the correct numbers could vary even more.
The sampling margin of error doesn't include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they're asked.