NEWTON, Iowa — Karin Wilhelm plans to list all the presidential candidates and their issue positions on a chart before she goes to vote in Thursday's Iowa caucus.
Sharon Heidt spent part of her vacation listening to Barack Obama. Jennifer Hardman is trying to figure out who's the most committed conservative. George McDaniel can't tell you exactly how he's going to make up his mind.
They're all part of an army of likely Iowa caucus voters who are still undecided about their choices for president — and what's maddening for the campaigns is that there's no easy way to categorize these people.
The McClatchy-MSNBC poll released Sunday found that 8 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republican likely voters in Iowa are still unsure. If they shift in big numbers to a single candidate, which has happened in the past, they could give someone a big win and momentum into the rush of primaries ahead.
But these folks are hard to figure out.
"All kinds of things could push them over the edge for someone," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the survey.
On the Democratic side, equal numbers of men and women are undecided. The same split is apparent among people over 50 and people under 50, as well as between new caucus voters and those who've done this before.
Republican undecideds have a slightly different hue. About two-thirds are women and nearly the same proportion is over 50.
One reason for that tilt, said Coker, is that "there's no female candidate on the Republican side," and older voters tend to take longer to decide. "They're a little less impulsive," he said.
If there's any consistent thread to how the undecideds are thinking, it's that "they want to be right," said McDaniel, a Des Moines retiree. They are serious voters, and they want to be sure they're picking the most electable and competent person.
There's another common link: "This is a state where people like to play their cards close to the vest," said McDaniel, "and they don't like the idea that the media might seem to tell them what to do."
So Joanna Braucht, a Des Moines mortgage company representative, is looking for a Democrat who can win. But just what, she wonders, constitutes electability?
"I'm afraid (former North Carolina Senator) John Edwards can't win the primaries, but he would have national support in the general election," she said. "But (Illinois Sen.) Barack Obama can win the primaries, but not the general."
Alex Kron, a college student, has a similar quandary, but his equation involves New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. She's not electable, he frets, and he wants a Democrat. So he attended an Obama rally one day last week, listened intently, and walked away saying, "I'm considering him."
Some people put a lot of stock in developing a gut feeling for candidates. They find that most in each party are pretty much in agreement on issues, so they want to get a sense of their gravitas.
Heidt, a Clive medical technologist, saw Clinton one night, and spent part of her vacation time last week seeing Obama in Des Moines. "I needed to see him one more time," she said.
Republicans operate the same way. Chip Racheter, a Pella student, headed for Ottumwa last week to hear former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and showed up at the Smokey Row coffee shop in Pella to see former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Racheter's assessment: "Huckabee took more questions, and there seemed to be more applause."
For all their searching for some political epiphany, lots of undecided voters search with issue checklists.
Laura Crowley of Des Moines is interested in policy on alternative fuels, and likes Clinton's proposals, but also finds Edwards's domestic views impressive.
Linda Peacock, a Des Moines registered nurse, is studying candidate views on the Medicare Advantage program, which includes extra benefits beyond Medicare. She sees the program as badly flawed. "I probably won't figure this out until right before the caucus," Peacock said.
Candidates, knowing that undecideds could make or break them on Thursday, are trying mightily to reach them. After New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson delivered a speech on Pakistan in Des Moines last week, an aide spent 10 minutes trying to convince Mike Latch, a Uniondale contractor, to back his candidate.
Latch finally broke away, saying quietly, "I have to look at who's most electable."
In Pella on Saturday, Romney spent about half his time at Smokey Row answering voters' questions. Barb Koskamp, a retired teacher, spent five minutes buttonholing him on a variety of topics, notably immigration.
She asked how he would deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented aliens now in the country, particularly those with families still in other countries.
"Let those individuals get in line with everybody else," he said.
That may not be practical, Koskamp told him.
"Let them get in line," Romney repeated.
She wasn't sold, at least not yet. "I do like his visionary quality," Koskamp said. "But I'm still choosing."
What will eventually sway her? Like most undecideds, it'll probably come down to some intangible. Koskamp shrugged: "It's hard to say."