STORM LAKE, IOWA
With just four days to go until the Iowa caucuses, Marv Grote still doesn't know which candidate he's going to vote for. The best he can do is say he's "committed" to three: John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Howard Dean.
"You know, when you hear one, you're for him," the Storm Lake resident says, waiting for Senator Edwards to appear at the Baker's Court restaurant. "Then you hear the next one - and he's the one!" He shakes his head and smiles. "I'll keep listening until it's caucus time."
As the first citizens to cast their votes in nominating contests every four years, Iowans are famous for weighing their decisions carefully - watching debates, reading up on candidates' positions, often taking notes. But this year, many are having a harder time than usual. It's not just the size of the field. Many also see this as an exceptionally talented - and appealing - bunch, combining years of experience, impressive rhetorical skills, and likable personalities.
Indeed, at a phase of the campaign when politicking often turns negative and voters begin describing their choice in terms of the lesser of many evils, most here seem to be agonizing over whom they like the most. And the increasing competitiveness of the race is only making it harder. "Iowans are having a real tough time making a choice among these candidates," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Or as Lila Murray, a farmer from rural Storm Lake, puts it: "There's so many of them! And most of them are very able in many areas."
"I'm halfway on the fence," agrees Bonnie Steffen. "There's something about each one you like."
Certainly, analysts say, this campaign has been far more intense than anything Iowans have seen in a long time. Voters have been inundated with ads, phone calls, and mailings. They've seen more candidate visits than ever before - due to the number of people running, and the tightness of the race.
"There is no precedent for this," says Gordon Fischer, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. The closest comparison, Mr. Fischer says, would be the 1988 campaign - the last time seven candidates were on the ballot. But even that year didn't have the energy and visibility of the current race. "Everything's been kicked up several notches," he says.
While some admit to feeling overwhelmed, the campaign also seems to be generating more interest than usual. Typically, only a fraction of the state's eligible voters attend the caucuses: In 2000, it was just 61,000 on the Democratic side. The gatherings can be intimidating, given the complicated rules and hours of debate. It isn't a matter of simply pulling a lever. "They are a place where people go who are political nerds," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
But this year, analysts are expecting an unusually large turnout - at least double the last cycle. Many Iowans will be attending their first caucus. "This is the first time I've been involved in a political event this early," says Denise Blakely, a service representative for John Deere, from Alleman. Normally, she waits until the general election to cast her vote. But now, she and her husband, Bill, are at a Gephardt rally. "I just think there's an awful lot at stake," says Mr. Blakely, a systems analyst.
Yet that doesn't mean they're committed to Gephardt - or opposed to any of the other Democratic candidates. Denise likes Gephardt's "Midwestern values" - but also Edwards's youth and freshness. She says she's thinking about "everybody." Bill says he probably won't caucus for Dean, but is quick to note that if Dean wins, he'll support him. The key, he says, is "to make sure we get the [candidate] who has the best chance against Bush."
The Dean campaign has been particularly adept at attracting first-time caucus-goers. It's been running training sessions explaining how the system works. Linda Hallengren, a dietary supervisor from Alta who attended one, says "it was a good experience." Now, she says, unless there's a "big change," she'll caucus for the first time on Monday, for Dean. Still, she's attending an Edwards event, and finds him "just a charming, personable person."
Erik and Stephanie Edgren even switched their registration from Republican to Democrat so they could attend this year's caucuses. A farmer from Oskaloosa, Erik says he usually winds up voting against a candidate rather than for one. Not this time. "I will be voting for Howard Dean," he says. Still, he also likes Edwards - and told Dean he should pick him as his vice president.