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Three Top Democrats Share Lead In Iowa Poll

Overall, about half of likely caucus-goers expressed a preference for what Obama is claiming to offer, which is a new direction and new ideas, while 39 percent prioritized strength and experience. Among those who are looking for new ideas and a new direction, 37 percent supported Obama, 31 percent Edwards and 15 percent Clinton. Among those who cite strength and experience, Clinton had a wide lead, with 38 percent saying they would vote for her, and Edwards second at 21 percent. Obama and Richardson trailed with 14 percent each.

Edwards's relative strength on both sides of this critical equation underscores how different the Iowa contest is from a hypothetical national primary. In national polls, Clinton has a 32-point lead among Democrats who said they are looking for a candidate with strength and experience. And while she is running even with Obama and well ahead of Edwards nationally among those who said they prefer a candidate with fresh ideas, she is far behind both on that quality in Iowa.

Clinton has built her support both nationally and in Iowa on several key leadership and political attributes, one of the most important being a widespread perception that she is ready for the White House. Half of all likely caucus-goers rated her as the candidate with the best experience to be president, with Edwards a distant second at 15 percent and Richardson at 13 percent. Seven percent rated Obama, the first-term senator from Illinois, as the candidate with the best experience.

Clinton also was judged most often to be the strongest leader among the Democratic candidates and the one with the best chance of winning the 2008 general election. Thirty-five percent of likely caucus attendees rated her the most electable in the Democratic field, with Obama and Edwards in the low 20s.

Clinton also had an edge as the candidate "best able to handle the situation in Iraq," which could prove critical in the caucuses. Nearly nine in 10 likely caucus-goers in this poll said the Iraq war was not worth fighting, with the overwhelming majority saying so "strongly."

But Clinton rated well below the other top contenders on two important personal attributes. Just 14 percent of those surveyed called her the most likable Democrat in the field, and an equally low percentage said she is the most honest and trustworthy.

Edwards and Obama were rated almost equally on the majority of the attributes, including most likable, most honest, best at understanding people's problems, being closest to those surveyed on the issues and dealing with Iraq.

Obama's hope for winning in Iowa appears to depend heavily on his ability to turn younger voters out on caucus night. Iowa's caucus process demands far more of voters than do presidential primaries. Participants must spend several hours at a caucus, and there are no secret ballots. All voting is done in public.

Among Iowa voters younger than 45, Obama has the advantage -- 39 percent, compared with 24 percent for Clinton and 22 percent for Edwards. Among those age 45 and older, Clinton and Edwards were tied at 28 percent, with Obama trailing at 18 percent. Four years ago, these older-than-45 voters made up two-thirds of all caucus participants.

In this poll, 31 percent of likely caucus-goers said the upcoming caucuses will be their first. Half of those younger than 45 said this would be their first time out. Converting interest into commitment among younger voters is one big challenge facing Obama's team.

Clinton wins greater support among women than men and more support among those earning less than $50,000 annually than those who earn more, similar to patterns in national polls. Edwards, who has positioned himself as the most liberal of the top three candidates, trails Clinton and Obama among liberals in Iowa.

Obama's Illinois ties have spilled over into Iowa. The senator runs best in eastern Iowa, which borders his home state. Edwards does best in more rural and conservative western Iowa, which is GOP territory in general elections. Clinton's support is about even across the state.

The poll provides stark evidence of how intense the early campaigning has been. The 71 percent of voters who have already received a telephone call from one of the campaigns is about equal to the percentage of likely caucus-goers who reported getting called in December 2003, the month before the 2004 caucuses.

The portion having already attended one or more campaign events, 40 percent, is up somewhat from that time, and the percentage donating money to one of the candidates is about as high. A third of likely voters have already received e-mails from a campaign, and a third have visited a candidate's Web site.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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