ANKENY, Iowa — At first, she liked Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He was about faith and family, just like she is. Then she heard Perry debate.
And then she liked Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Another assertive Christian. But that ended, too: “She has kind of an annoying voice.”
So then Susan Fredregill — a 58-year-old retiree with blonde highlights and six grandchildren to watch — moved on to her third Republican candidate of this chaotic presidential primary season. She liked former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.).
At least for a few days.
“Let’s just pick the smart one,” Fredregill thought. “And get it over with.”
This is what Iowa’s epic case of political indecision looks like, from the inside.
With less than two weeks before its first-in-the-nation caucuses, this state has already cycled through four front-runners. The latest is Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), whose poll numbers rose this week as Gingrich’s lead deflated.
This political promiscuity is a little embarrassing, for people who picture themselves in a state-sized Norman Rockwell painting: America’s sober, decisive First Voters. Now, many Iowans can’t stop changing their minds.
Some want the most electable candidate. Others want the purest conservative. They think they’ve got their choice — and then they don’t. Many Iowans say they’re frustrated by their inability to find a candidate that seems ready for this extraordinary moment.
Four of their stories may help answer a question at the heart of a young campaign season. Why can’t Iowa just make up its mind?
“Thank God it’s the Christmas holidays. Because I think we need some time to ourselves,” said Jeff Jorgensen, 57. “The whole state does.”
Jorgensen, a bearish man with large gold-rimmed glasses, was a political nobody three years ago. President Obama made him a somebody: Jorgensen, an IT worker, was so worried about Obama that he started writing letters to the editor. And more letters. And then pieces on RedState.com, warning that Obama would bring higher unemployment and growing debt.
Quickly, the Republican Party in Pottawatomie County, Iowa — in the cross-river suburbs of Omaha, Neb. — made this rabble-rouser its chairman. And now, Jorgensen is trying to find a candidate who can combine his personal need for a true conservative with the party’s need for somebody that can win.
He liked former pizza executive Herman Cain: an outsider, just like Jorgensen. Then, he liked Gingrich for his debate skills and experience. But he didn’t like what he learned about the speaker’s baggage.
So who will it be? Jorgensen talks his way through the other candidates, like a man re-counting dollar bills in search of a twenty that wasn’t there the first time. Perry? Failed to meet his expectations. Bachmann? Lost her lead already. Paul? His foreign policy.
Romney? “He ran in , and he ran in 2008. His name back then was Bob Dole and John McCain,” he said, saying that Romney and those two losing nominees are all too moderate in their beliefs.
Right now, Jorgensen said he’s most interested in Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), because of his strong conservative views on social issues. “There’s not a position that he has that I disagree with.” But Santorum is still a second-tier candidate. Could he really win? Would he really be up to the task of being president?
Jorgensen answers those questions with a simple statement of faith. He’s confident that Santorum — or whoever — could grow to fit a role they can’t fit now.
“These are extraordinary times, and it just takes an exceptional candidate,” he said. “I have faith that whoever we nominate will step up to the plate, and be that exceptional candidate.”
Even if they’re not right now?
“Even if they’re not right now.”
For Justin Johnson, 37, the last three years have been about cutting back — paychecks, living space, ambitions.
A nurse’s aide, he had his wages cut back to a meager $100 per week. He and his wife and infant daughter left the college town of Ames, giving up their own place close to the little coffee shop where the baristas draw leaf patterns in the foam.
“We’re moving to a FARM!” said his wife, Milla Baskayeva, a city girl from Odessa, Ukraine.
“We’re going back to the Alamo,” Johnson said. He meant his parents’ farm near rural Bouton. But the line was from “Saving Private Ryan”: This was the last place he could retreat to.
This election, Johnson wanted a candidate who would force the country to face the same kind of hard, necessary cutbacks that he had. “You can’t be spending more than you make,” Johnson said.
He liked Cain, a guy who had once made pizzas. He would understand the life of a guy making Johnson’s salary. After Cain got out of the race, Johnson switched to Paul — who has been consistent in his calls to cut government spending.
Probably. He’s 85 percent sure.
He also likes Perry, a more upbeat candidate, because of his strong Christian faith. In his own life, too, Johnson has not totally resigned himself to austerity: He and his wife are still looking for a way to fulfill his dream of going to medical school. Maybe in the Caribbean.
“Even now, as we talk about it . . . I’m not 100 percent” behind Paul, Johnson said. On the table in front of him at the coffee shop, there was a 3-month-old infant, and a decaf latte with a leaf in the foam.
“As soon as you start to be sure about a candidate, they’ll get blown out of the water,” said Don Rivers, 68. He is a big, garrulous man with small glasses, drinking Diet Coke in a diner in Cedar Rapids.
Rivers was talking about the weight of being an Iowan right now. The importance of deciding, before Jan. 3 caucuses that are supposed to give an anxious country its cue. “It’s so darn important that we’ve got to stay on top of it,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to do our part.”
Rivers is a retired book editor and marketing and sales executive, who now drives Iowa’s highways to sell greeting cards to gift shops (funny sells better than sappy in a recession, he said). When this campaign season began, he wanted one thing above all: somebody who could beat President Obama.
“If he has four more years, we will be just like Greece,” Rivers said.
At first, that seemed like Perry: Rivers loved his record of job creation in Texas. Then Perry flubbed his debates: “I just felt like he was losing his chance to win.” He liked Cain, a fellow businessman and a Washington outsider. But then Cain suspended his campaign.
Then, Rivers shifted his allegiance to Gingrich. It was a rather joyless choice: Gingrich was an insider in Washington, who seemed less likely to shake things up.
But at least, Rivers felt, he wasn’t Obama. And he could win.
“He’s basically said all the things he’s supposed to say,” Rivers said, assessing the speaker’s credibility as a conservative.
But then Iowa was barraged with negative ads about Gingrich’s “baggage”: his fine for a House ethics violation. His global-warming TV ad with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). So maybe Gingrich couldn’t win, after all.
Now, Rivers is thinking about his fourth candidate of this campaign cycle: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“I think Romney probably has an edge” with voters in the general election, Rivers said. He is slouched over his Diet Coke. He thinks Romney is wishy-washy as a conservative. But this year, Rivers wants what other people want: “I think they’ll feel safe with him.”
Fredregill — the grandmother who had already given up on Perry and Bachmann — stayed with Gingrich for less than a week.
She had chosen him out of resignation. Fredregill believes that God is punishing America for a host of sins: gay marriage, abortion, soft support of Israel, consumerism and greed.
Her own life had suffered, too. One daughter lost a house and saw her full-time job turn part-time. Another daughter divorced. She babysat the grandkids, sometimes tending so many at one time that going to the swimming pool took two trips.
“The country’s going to go down the toilet,” she thought then. No matter who was president.
But then, something happened. Fredregill was home tending to a grandson with the flu, and she saw a TV report that U.S. troops had left Iraq, suffering no casualties as they went. God, she saw, had protected them.
So then God might be willing to give the country a second chance. And so, in an instant, Fredregill had a new, fourth presidential candidate. Not “the smart one,” but one who agreed with her on issues like Israel, abortion and gay marriage.
Finally, a candidate that excited her, even if he probably can’t win.
“Why am I giving up on our country” if God was not? Fredregill said, banging her fist on the table of a Starbucks Coffee inside a SuperTarget store. “It was just this big epiphany. We’ve got to vote for Santorum! That’s all there is to it.”