So Many Candidates, So Little Time Left

(Dan Balz - The Washington Post)
By David S. Broder and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 15, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 14 -- With both parties lacking clear front-runners in the race for the White House, several of the undecided Iowa voters assembled by The Washington Post this week to talk in-depth about the contenders are still weighing as many as four candidates just weeks before the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Danielle Brown, 29, an undecided likely Republican voter from Clive, summed up her concerns this way: "There's no candidate that ignites passion in me or ignites the feeling, you know, that he can help our country. I felt a little bit more like Romney would do that . . . that he's led his life pretty honestly. But I still don't think he has everything."

In the Democratic group, Marty Warrick, 38, of Pleasant Hill said he thinks voters are excited. "We've got a few very good candidates, a lot of good candidates that have a lot of good ideas," he said.

Overall, participants in the Republican group had the most favorable views of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who led in recent Iowa polls. But former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson's performance in Wednesday's Republican debate also brought him back into consideration for some.

On the Democratic side, some polls have begun to show Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois moving into the lead, and he won the broadest praise among this group of on-the-fence voters. But New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina senator John Edwards also had solid support, while New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson impressed some with his debate performance.

The Post brought together a dozen Republicans and 11 Democrats on consecutive nights to watch this week's Des Moines Register presidential debates and discuss the campaign. All said they are uncommitted but definitely plan to attend the caucuses.

Focus groups are not necessarily a representative sample of Iowa voters or caucus attendees. But the views of these 23 Iowans offered insights into the issues that are driving the elections here and the questions that remain in the minds of some voters as the caucuses approach.

Romney has spent more time and money in Iowa than any of the other candidates, and that investment appears to have paid off among these voters. Some in the Republican group described him as a strong leader with attractive ideas who looks like a president. They used words such as "leadership," "vision," "strong" and "focused" to describe him.

"He had a specific answer for every question, something that he actually wanted to do," said Sheri Reid, 65, of Ankeny. "I'm leaning much more towards him this time than I have been."

But others expressed reservations. One focus group member called him "smooth"; another said he was "trying too hard." "I don't trust him," a third said. But no one explicitly called him a flip-flopper, as some of his opponents have done. Nor was his Mormonism raised as a negative by anyone.

Huckabee's debate performance also impressed the group. Some liked his discussion of preventive health care and advocacy for teaching art and music as well as science and math in schools. Others mentioned his tough stand on trade with China.

"I don't think Huckabee lost any ground," said Ken Boatright, 62, of Des Moines. "Nobody laid a finger on him, I would say, for anything significant. So if he was the leader going in, he probably might be coming out."

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