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Dems Scramble For Undecided Iowa Voters

Jane Halliburton is seen at the Iowa State Association of Counties Fall School of Instruction, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa. Halliburton dined with Joe Biden and conferred with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Talked with Barack Obama and met with Chris Dodd. Loved the pecan pie sent over by John Edwards' staff. Any of the five "could be my candidate" by the time the Iowa presidential caucuses roll around in just one month. She is like uncounted thousands of picky political shoppers, not yet ready to make decisions that will settle the the first contest in the race for the White House.
AP
Jane Halliburton dined with Joe Biden and conferred with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Talked with Barack Obama and met with Chris Dodd. Loved the pecan pie sent over by John Edwards' staff.

Any of the five "could be my candidate" by the time the Iowa presidential caucuses roll around on Jan. 3, she says. But only one of them will be.

Even by Iowa standards, Halliburton's access to the candidates is unusual, stemming from her position as an elected supervisor in Story County in the central part of the state. Yet one month before the caucuses, she's typical of uncounted thousands of picky political shoppers, not yet ready to make decisions that will settle the first contest in the race for the White House.

Count Connie and Roger Maifield among them as they settle into their seats at the library in Allison, population 1,006 at the last census.

Waiting to hear Biden's earnest appeal for their support, she says she likes Edwards' emphasis on tackling poverty.

Her husband is interested in New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and volunteers that Obama "has a hopeful message." Still, Roger Maifield says of Obama, "I'm not sure he has the experience." And he worries that Clinton might prove such a polarizing candidate that Republicans would retain the White House.

An hour later, Biden has impressed both of them - to a point. "I'd still like to hear someone else," she says.

The extensive candidate shopping occurs as recent polls show an unpredictable race. A survey by The Associated Press and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed Clinton with 31 percent support and Obama with 26 percent. Edwards had 19 percent.

Additionally, 10 percent said they were undecided or declined to specify a favorite, and more than half of those surveyed said they could support any of the contenders. One-third said they feel less than strong support for their pick, indicating a potential for wholesale switching as the race heads into its final weeks.

Lavern Patrie, 76 and retired, is slowly winnowing his choices. He's seen and heard Richardson in Cedar Falls, Dodd in Waterloo, Edwards in Grundy Center and now Biden.

He's ruled out Clinton, he says, because in his view, President Bush has "more or less given her his blessing."

Not ready to decide yet, though.

If anything, Sylvia Hawker of Greene may have even more choices.

"In truth I'm a Republican," she says. But something drew her to Biden's appearance, and she says he "certainly does seem to have the most experience of anyone running in either party."

It's anyone's guess how many Democrats will turn out on Jan. 3. The record is slightly above 124,000, and some strategists predict the intense competition could produce thousands more next month.

Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who is neutral in the race, said he believes at least half of all caucus goers remain undecided or could yet change their minds. "I talked to someone the other day and they were very excited that they had narrowed it down to their top four," he said with a chuckle.

Four years ago at this time, Howard Dean appeared to be cruising to victory in Iowa, with John Kerry and Edwards going nowhere. That changed quickly, though. Kerry won and Edwards claimed second as Dean faded.

Given that history, the campaigns bombard would-be supporters with mail and phone calls. According to the AP-Pew poll, 81 percent of those surveyed have received campaign mail and 33 percent have received a personal visit by a campaign worker. Some 65 percent have received at least one live phone call.

It's gotten so that Alfred Monroe, 76, of Muscatine, said he hates to hear the phone ring anymore. "It can be a nuisance at times like this," he said while waiting for former President Bill Clinton to speak on the former first lady's behalf.

"But that's what you do in Iowa when the phone rings: pick it up and talk to a campaign."

In Ames, more than 80 miles from Allison, it's another night and another candidate for Susan Petra, recently retired as an art teacher.

"I have heard every one," she says, including Dennis Kucinich as well as Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Dodd, Biden and Richardson.

"I think Dodd has the experience and the temperament to work with people," she says. Yet she also has "great empathy" for Edwards, who has impressed her with his determination to tackle health care, education and other middle class issues.

"I do like things about other candidates," she adds.

Mark her down as undecided.

So, too, John Deegan, assessor in Jasper County east of Des Moines.

"I'm a card player in life, and I want to make sure I see the hand before I place my bet," he says.

Iowans aren't new at this. It's been more than 30 years since the caucuses first wielded influence in campaigns for the White House, and some Democrats here make a point of having a back-up choice in case their favorite doesn't have enough support to gain a delegate.

"I've really struggled with that," says J.R. Ackley, a Biden supporter. His answer? "Probably Obama."

Compared with potential voters in most states, Ackley is fortunate. Iowa's position at the head of the nominating calendar means candidates doggedly move around the state.

Halliburton and others who have been elected to office - state lawmakers and county officials - find the candidates beating a path to their door. "The exciting thing to me is to be able to sit down with each of them," she says.

She found Clinton "very personable and warm." Obama is "a very charismatic kind of person." Biden invited her to join him at dinner with Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, whom she already knew. "It was very enjoyable for me to watch how the senator and governor interacted," she said.

She's not had an opportunity to meet with Edwards personally yet, although his aides brought her a pecan pie one day.

"I had hoped to talk to him at the National Rural Summit, but Senator Obama's staff got to me first," she recalled with a laugh.