By CBS News pollster Anthony Salvanto
For more than a year the candidates, pundits and pollsters have all had their say about the Democratic nomination fight. Monday night, the voters finally start getting theirs, too.
In that spirit, Democratic primary voters around the country have been telling the CBS News poll why they were backing their favored candidate.
What the voters say is that the candidates are getting some of their messages through to a national electorate - even one where only one-quarter are paying a lot of attention.
But so far, candidates have connected with voters as much with their personal qualities and style as with specific plans or issues.
Howard Dean, the national front-runner with about one in four Democrats behind him, made his mark in part by opposing the Iraq war. His supporters are, not surprisingly, also against the conflict, and by a 3-to-1 margin want a nominee who was, too.
But there's a lot more to Dean's support then just opposition to the war. Case in point: more than one-third of his people say it doesn't matter to them whether the party's nominee opposed or supported the war, a finding that the poll has consistently shown throughout the fall.
When we interviewed his backers last week, a lot talked about Dean's personal style instead of the war — a style that seems, perhaps even more than any particular position, to have generated much of his support.
"He's got backbone," said one person we interviewed. "Outspokenness," "a straight-shooter," "aggressive" came as praises from others. "He's got spunk." Another echoed that, praising Dean for saying he'd had enough of the administration's nonsense. (Well, they actually used a stronger word than "nonsense," but you get the idea.)
For Wesley Clark, running second in the CBS News poll, his military experience dominated his supporters' responses, and they saw in it the ability to lead ("a military man… a great leader," "leadership quality.")
Many voters imputed from that experience other positive personal qualities as well: it meant "wisdom," "patriotic values," and integrity. Clark would, they said, also bring "foreign policy experience," "know the situation in Iraq and other areas" and be "strong on defense."
Clark does, though, have a way to go to introduce himself to more voters: nearly half of all Democratic primary voters still haven't heard enough about him to voice an opinion – nearly twice as many as say that about Dean – and no one mentioned his new tax plan.
Dick Gephardt's backers echoed a lot of the themes of the congressman's campaign as they talked about the groups that might benefit from a Gephardt presidency.
They said Gephardt was for the "working class," "working people," "the individual worker," and labor. More than one used the phrase "the common people." Those who talked about Gephardt's personal attributes cited his "experience;" one backer discussed how Gephardt knew "every aspect" of policy. Only one of the respondents, though, mentioned Gephardt's health care plan.
John Kerry's backers, like Clark's, talked often of the military and foreign policy, and some linked Kerry's service background to views on character and experience. For them, his Vietnam experience connected to a better handle on the military issues that are so important today. The fact that "he was in the war," said one voter, means he understood or "knows more than the others" about it.
Others noted the senator's foreign policy experience or stances on foreign affairs and his "exposure to national and international issues." One respondent was looking to Kerry to be more of a centrist, saying he's "more of a moderate than Dean."
Words like "young" and "vitality," and "from a different generation," came up with the John Edwards backers. The Senator also drew praise for running what his supporters saw as a positive campaign.
"He's the only candidate," one said, "running his campaign in an intelligent and responsible way," apparently reaching at least some voters by trying to stay out of the back-and-forth critiques that have marked the debates in recent weeks.
Others gave him, like Gephardt, kudos for representing "the common people," echoing the way in which Edwards has emphasized his upbringing, and more than a couple noted a regional appeal: "He's from where I'm from."
Heading into Iowa tonight, here are a couple more descriptions that political watchers need to know – words that describe not the candidates, but the electorate: Fluid. Up in the air. Unpredictable.
Fifteen percent of all primary voters are still entirely undecided, and of all the voters we talked to who were backing a nominee, a full three-quarters said their mind still wasn't made up.
That means more than eight out of 10 primary voters are still essentially up for grabs, and when words like "momentum," or "viability" get attached to some of these candidates after the early contests, the race could re-shape dramatically.
As voting begins in Iowa, Democratic primary voters around the country are nearly united on this much: they think the country is going in the wrong direction (80 percent say so), that things are either worse or no better today than five years ago (nine out of 10 think this) and that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (three-quarters say that.)
But nearly 40 percent of Democratic voters also expect their nominee to eventually lose to President Bush next fall.
So as this primary season gets underway, maybe there's one candidate quality that a lot of voters aren't prioritizing just yet, one that didn't come up too often in these poll interviews, for any of them: "He's the one that's sure to win in November."
By Anthony M. Salvanto