Poll Shows Obama With 7-Point Lead In Iowa Contest

By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

DES MOINES, Dec. 31 -- The tense and unpredictable three-way Democratic battle in Iowa got a surprising jolt late Monday when a new poll showed Sen. Barack Obama widening his lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former senator John Edwards.

Other recent polls have shown the race to be a virtual dead heat among the three, and strategists for all three campaigns have stressed the fluid and unpredictable nature of the contest leading up to the state's leadoff caucuses on Thursday.

The Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register showed Obama (Ill.) at 32 percent, up from 28 percent in November. Clinton (N.Y.) was at 25 percent and Edwards (N.C.) at 24 percent, virtually unchanged from November. No other Democrat was above 6 percent.

The new poll gave Obama a critical psychological boost at a time when the focus in Iowa had shifted to Edwards, whose fiery anti-corporate rhetoric appeared to be gaining converts. Clinton, too, had appeared to have steadied herself after a series of stumbles in November and early December.

The Register reported that Obama's support has been bolstered by first-time caucusgoers -- a remarkable 72 percent of his supporters in the poll said that this would be their first caucus -- and by strong backing from independents as well as some Republicans.

Strategists for Clinton and Edwards criticized the poll. The Clinton camp said pollsters overestimated the number of independents and Republicans who will participate in the Democratic caucuses. The Edwards camp suggested that the results may overstate the number of newcomers likely to turn out Thursday night. But Obama's campaign has long said that he has the capacity to bring in substantial numbers of new voters, including independents and Republicans.

One reason for caution is that because of caucus rules, candidates' final percentages can vary significantly from what the polls predict. Four years ago, however, the Register's final survey correctly called the order of finish in the Democratic caucuses.

The Obama campaign's challenge, campaign manager David Plouffe said late Monday, will be to convert the support apparent in the poll into real support on Thursday. If so, he said, "we're headed for a good night." But he added: "A poll is not going to caucus. Therein lies the challenge."

The Register poll found also found that more than half of Clinton's and Edwards's supporters said they would be attending their first caucuses.

The caucuses are particularly difficult to forecast through polls, and the holiday season has added to the problem. Strategists for Edwards sent out an e-mail questioning some aspects of the polling, in the hopes of dampening the impact of the results for Obama. Adding to the volatility of the race, one-third of those surveyed said they could still change their mind before Thursday.

The new poll results came at the end of a busy day of campaigning, during which Obama launched a radio ad that criticized his two rivals by name -- the first of the campaign to do so -- and both he and Clinton took aim at Edwards.

Campaigning in Keokuk on the final day of the year, Clinton appeared to have both Edwards and Obama in mind when she talked about combating special interests. "I submit to you there isn't anybody running who's taken on more special interests and taken on more incoming fire and survived than I have," she said.

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