DES MOINES, Iowa — The struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination is becoming a volatile, unpredictable brawl. No lead is secure, and voters remain torn between a yen for decisive change and a desire for an experienced hand.
As a result, the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and maybe John Edwards — remains too close to call in these last days before the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina vote.
Pat Walters, an insurance claims agent from Des Moines, embodied the dilemma of the challenged voter as he waited for Clinton to speak at a local senior center last week.
He's leaning toward Joseph Biden, he said, but since the Delaware senator probably has no chance, his next inkling is to go with Obama. But Walters can't rule out Clinton. "She's probably just as good," he said. "But I don't know whether she'd be able to unite people."
The race has morphed into this muddle only in recent weeks. Prior to that, polls and pundits suggested that Clinton, the New York senator, was in her own political stratosphere, a solid front-runner with the aura of inevitability.
But voters in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses on Jan. 3; New Hampshire, where the first primary ballots will be cast five days later; and South Carolina, which on Jan. 26 will be the first test in the South, don't like to be told in December that the race is over. So Clinton now finds herself in a dogfight, and she's become a very different candidate.
Depending on your point of view, the Christmastime Clinton — the "Hillary I Know," according to last week's campaign slogan — is stumping the early states either as a scrapper craftily using every emotion and tactic in her considerable reservoir, or she's a desperate woman pleading with voters to understand that she really, really feels their pain.
On her heels is Obama, the Illinois senator who seems to be gaining a steely confidence as impassioned crowds lift his wings, as well as the pugnacious Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee who seems to be spending more time in Iowa this holiday season than he is back home in North Carolina.
This mad scramble, voters say, has left them uncertain of what to do. Polls generally show Obama and Clinton in a dead heat in Iowa, with Edwards within reach; Clinton with a slight lead over Obama in New Hampshire; and another virtual two-way tie in South Carolina, with Edwards far back in the latter two states.
What matters most to Democratic voters is choosing a candidate who can win in November, unlike their last two presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry.
Do they go with Clinton, the candidate of the party establishment with 15 years of Washington experience? Or Obama, this year's fresh face who presents himself as the candidate of hope and historic change? Or perhaps Edwards, the fighting populist who promises to take on all special interests and fight for the common man?
When they read the polls, many Democratic voters get a familiar chill. A mid-November Mason-Dixon survey in Florida said 51 percent of voters wouldn't even consider choosing Clinton. In Ohio, the number was 55 percent. In Nevada, another swing state, 54 percent.
"She consistently tops the list of candidates most voters have ruled out voting for," said Brad Coker, the poll's managing director.
Some voters sense Gore and Kerry redux.
"I know she probably has most of the policies I agree with," said Margery Harrison, a software engineer from Goffstown, N.H., who's deciding between Biden, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd. "I'd be afraid she would so polarize the nation that it wouldn't work."
In Charleston, S.C., Becky Steiner, a saleswoman, didn't hesitate to say why: "I do not believe America is ready for a woman president. Katie Couric (CBS News anchor) can't even get decent ratings for her show. We're not ready."
But for all his crowd-pleasing ability, Obama also inspires reservations among many undecided voters.
"I don't like Clinton," said Janet Gilman, an artist from Hillsborough, N.H. "I just have a bad feeling about her. Obama, he's a great orator. But he has no experience. He's too green."
"He hasn't even run a tough race yet," said Jason Farmer, a Mount Pleasant, S.C., chiropractor. Obama won his Senate seat in 2004 by beating last-minute Republican nominee Alan Keyes, who moved to Illinois from Maryland to enter the race.
In New Hampshire and Iowa, voters voiced similar concerns.
"I probably like Obama better than Clinton," said Dan Greenleaf, an undecided voter who's self-employed in Manchester. "Clinton's too tied in with the establishment of the Democratic Party. There is an element of the royalty factor."
Greenleaf said he liked Obama's message and felt "he's bringing in an element of hope and enthusiasm we haven't seen in a while."
But then came the familiar refrain: "His experience is a problem."
Obama counters that experience matters less than good judgment. He contends that he'd bring varied experience, notably his years as a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, law professor and state lawmaker. He also says that his background as a biracial American and the four years he spent as a child living in Indonesia give him unique insights into how to lead at home and abroad.
With voters split, the winner probably will be determined by who's best at organizing voters, particularly in Iowa, where Clinton is believed to have the most fine-tuned get-out-the-vote apparatus.
But voters' gut instincts also will matter — a lot. That's why Iowa and New Hampshire histories are full of candidates who surged in the final weekend. And that's why, in these closing days, people such as Matt Winter, a Sibley, Iowa, law student, will get a lot of attention.
An independent, he's considering many candidates, with Clinton and Republican Mike Huckabee at the top of his list.
"I know they have significant disagreements," he said, "but Huckabee is a really good person and will use his instincts to do the right thing. So would Clinton."
As Jan. 3 nears, he'll weigh who needs his vote most, then choose.
"A gut feeling," Winter said, "is going to make up my mind."
(Lightman and Talev reported from South Carolina and Iowa, Stearns from New Hampshire.)