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Gephardt winning `undecideds' in Iowa. TV ads seen as building congressman's image as a strong leader

Iowa Democrats are finally beginning to make up their minds for president. And the biggest beneficiary is Richard Gephardt. That's the conclusion of a poll released yesterday showing the congressman from Missouri now leading the Democrats with 31 percent. He is followed by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (20 percent); Illinois Sen. Paul Simon (16 percent); former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart (12 percent); the Rev. Jesse Jackson (11 percent); and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (8 percent).

The Republican race is largely unchanged, according to the new poll by the University of Iowa's Social Science Institute. Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas leads with 47 percent, followed by Vice-President George Bush (33 percent); TV evangelist Pat Robertson (11 percent); and Rep. Jack Kemp of New York (7 percent). The flap between Mr. Bush and CBS anchorman Dan Rather has begun to help the vice-president, but the incident is too recent to determine what the longlasting impact will be, says Arthur H. Miller, the institute's director.

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The institute polled some 2,300 Iowa voters from mid-January on. Its findings are in line with other recent polls.

The surge of support for Representative Gephardt is dramatic. In mid-December, when the institute conducted its first poll, Gephardt had only 7 percent support among likely Democratic caucus-goers. Since then, he has picked up support from a large portion of undecided voters and Hart supporters who are abandoning that campaign.

``People en masse are starting to make a decision,'' Professor Miller says. ``Between the middle of December and now, there has been an increasing recognition ... of what Dick Gephardt stands for.''

According to several political observers, Gephardt's recent television ads have provided a major boost. One ad in particular, in which the candidate criticizes South Korean trade barriers on American cars, is considered particularly effective.

Surprisingly, the move toward Gephardt probably doesn't signal a tougher trade position among the Iowa electorate, Miller says. All the major Democratic candidates have a majority of supporters who favor tougher action on trade, according to the poll. The difference is that Gephardt's image as a strong leader has risen dramatically. In mid-December, only 15 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers viewed the candidate as a strong leader; now, he leads all the candidates with 47 percent.

``It's clearly not the content of his message that is influencing people,'' Miller says. ``They're reacting to how he delivers it.''

Voters' perceptions of the candidates are especially important in a caucus, Miller says, because the meetings often force voters to defend why they support particular candidates. The dynamic is difficult to predict, he adds. ``There are some things these polls can't explain.''

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Gephardt's ratings have risen in all the poll's categories, although he still rates low as an inspiring candidate.

The survey also looked at who the people are that will render their verdict on Feb. 8?

Compared with the national electorate ``they are moderate, more optimistic about the economy, ... more tied to agriculture,'' Miller says. ``The one area where they stand out is they do tend to be more dovish.''

Even among Republican caucus-goers, there is a desire to reduce military spending. More than 70 percent of Dole supporters favor such a move; so do 41 percent of Bush supporters.

``Iowans in general are very interested in this [caucus] process,'' Miller says. For example, 58 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers had seen both a debate among Republican candidates as well as Democrats; for likely Republican caucus-goers, the figure was 73 percent.

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