CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn is reporting from Iowa.
For months, Iowa City native Janet Lindstrom has been getting at least five calls a day from the Democratic presidential campaigns. Every day, she is invited to a breakfast or lunch or public speech. Every day, a pollster calls her. She is one of those faceless Iowans whose opinions are doggedly tracked. In the last two weeks, by her estimate, more than 30 pieces of campaign literature have been mailed to her home. Howard Dean has campaigned in her city 17 times; John Kerry has been there 12 times; John Edwards, four times.
But Lindstrom cannot make up her mind. And she is the wife of one of Iowa's political gurus, Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa professor and expert on all things caucus.
"I'm so undecided," she says with a sigh, overwhelmed by the white noise of calls, mailings and stump speeches. Lindstrom is not alone. About 10 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers have still not decided who will get their vote.
"The most important thing for me is to select a person who has the best chance against Bush in the general election," she continues, sitting beside a stack of glossy campaign literature. "I wonder who will put together the best campaign, who can attract the most Independents and Republicans that might cross over."
But before the general election, there is Iowa. The candidates must win over the 47-year-old Lindstrom and others like her to prevail in Monday night's caucus.
John Brant, 38, a Des Moines resident who runs his own software company, is in a similar position as Lindstrom. He also wants "anybody but Bush." However, while Lindstrom consistently votes Democratic, in the 2000 caucus Brant voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican. And in 1996, he voted for maverick conservative candidate Ross Perot.
"I never vote straight party line," Brant said while deplaneing after a recent business trip to Atlanta. "With Bush there is too much special interest running things. I'm not happy at all, even though I benefited from his tax cut, because I think that was shortsighted. I want a candidate who will stand up for the right thing."
On Monday night, Brant will attend his local caucus and register as a Democrat in order to participate. He says he is leaning toward North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, because of the candidate's "strong character." But, he adds with a smirk, "I still could be influenced."
After watching more than a year of campaigning by some candidates, Brant knows his vote is in demand. With three days left until the official kickoff of the 2004 presidential election, and with polls indicating a virtual dead heat among the top four candidates, the campaigns are looking to grab those off the fence.
Lindstrom is having a harder time making up her mind than Brant. She has narrowed her decision to three: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Edwards.
"Given how tight this race is, the undecided vote is absolutely critical because if the undecided votes splits between two candidates that could make a lot of the difference on who wins the caucus. It could make the difference," says Squire, who has been married to Lindstrom for 22 years and teaches several courses on American politics.
"Turnout is also going to be critical and the candidates have known that from the beginning, and the Dean people have a lot riding because they don't have people that have been through the process like Gephardt's and Kerry's. But if we see a high turnout, which is what I suspect, it should be good for Dean," Squire says.
And turnout is expected to be high, with perhaps as many as 120,000 caucus-goers; the 2000 turnout was barely half that. The record turnout for the Democratic caucus was 125,000 voters in 1988, when current contender Gephardt ran a hard race to victory against more experienced politicians. But this time Gephardt is the veteran fighting a field of first-time presidential contenders.
Across the Hawkeye State's mostly rural 99 counties, Iowans will drive Monday evening to church social halls, fire stations and school gymnasiums. In groups that can range from 20 to more than 200, they literally will stand up for their candidate in meetings that often exceed two hours. In the end, it will boil down to who has the most organized campaign (Dean or Gephardt) and who holds the momentum in the final days (Kerry or Edwards). This year's caucus will also not be the usual freezing and snowy night that the rest of the nation has come to expect from Iowa. There should be no snow and the temperature should hover in the 30's, almost guaranteeing a large turnout.
Squire believes that Iowans still deciding are likely to choose between Kerry and Edwards. Nearly half of those polled as undecided a week ago seem to have made up their minds, suggesting that the upsurge in both candidates' numbers may be related to a significant amount of former undecideds having picked either Kerry or Edwards.
Saturday evening, Lindstrom plans to attend a rally for Kerry at a mall in Iowa City. She hopes to make up her mind this weekend. On Thursday, she received two different leaflets from the Kerry campaign. She chuckles when recalling one campaign worker, who didn't yet know she was on the phone line, complaining that the voters he calls sometimes "get a little nasty." She is amazed that Dean supporters are writing her personal letters from as far as Oregon. But she also says the barrage of mailings will not affect her choice and neither will her marriage to a political science professor.
"You know I don't really talk about politics with my husband, he does not like to bring his work home with him," explains Lindstrom, who is a stay-at-home mom and has two teenagers to look after.
She says her decision will mostly be based on C-Span live campaign coverage and what she reads on the Internet.
"One of the nice things about the caucuses is that if the person I pick does not get the 15 percent support I will get to make my second choice," Lindstrom says. On Monday night, she will vote at her son's school, Iowa City High.
"I will definitely have my mind made up by then, but I'll tell ya, we are all looking forward to Tuesday when it's over."