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Caucus quandary: Iowans like them all

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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.

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