DES MOINES, Iowa A late surge by Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards has pushed them slightly ahead of long-standing front-runners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in the race to win Monday's Iowa caucuses, a new Des Moines Register poll shows.
Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, leads the Iowa poll with 26 percent of likely caucus participants naming him their first choice for the presidency. The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, also showed him gaining strength as the week wore on.
Edwards, a North Carolina senator who was in single digits in an Iowa poll taken two months ago, follows in second place at 23 percent his highest finish in any media poll.
Dean, the candidate who seemed to be in the driver's seat as recently as two weeks ago with a key endorsement from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, has slipped to third at 20 percent. But the former Vermont governor remains within striking distance of the lead in an unusually close race in which almost half of caucusgoers say they could still change their minds.
Gephardt, the Missouri congressman who is counting on a strong finish with help from labor unions, has dropped to fourth place at 18 percent. Gephardt won the caucuses in 1988 before losing the nomination to Michael Dukakis.
"The character of the race has changed dramatically. Kerry has surged into the lead, followed by an even more spectacular move by Edwards into second place," said J. Ann Selzer, the Register's pollster.
"The luster has faded from Dean's campaign, and Gephardt has stumbled down the stretch as well," Selzer said.
Four other candidates trail far behind in single digits, led by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio at 3 percent. Kucinich has been actively campaigning in the state, but Wesley Clark, at 2 percent, and Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton, at 1 percent each, are not competing in the caucuses.
The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. Percentages include those who say they are leaning toward supporting a particular candidate.
It takes more than popularity to win the caucuses, however. Campaigns must get supporters to their meetings Monday and keep them on board while recruiting other candidates' supporters and undecided voters.
The quartet of candidates still in the thick of the race have two days left to sway opinions and urge supporters to attend the caucuses, which launch the presidential nominating process.
Candidates generally aim to finish third or better in Iowa to strengthen their bids in New Hampshire and other states with early nominating contests. Exceeding political pundits' expectations is also an important campaign goal.
Poll participant Alicia Carriquiry, associate provost and professor of statistics at Iowa State University, said she might wait until Monday night before she makes up her mind.
"I have two or three favorites: Kerry, Edwards and Dean," said Carriquiry, 46. "I like Dean's position on the war. I like Kerry's position on taxes and the economy. I cannot pinpoint what I like about Edwards, but he makes pretty good sense."
There are other variables that make it difficult to predict the outcome of the Democratic caucuses.
While Kerry and Edwards seem to have the momentum, Dean and Gephardt have strong campaign organizations that appear capable of getting large numbers of their supporters to the caucuses. Dean has tried hard to draw young people and other newcomers into the party in support of his candidacy.
The Iowa Poll shows that a 55 percent majority of likely caucusgoers definitely plan to attend the events, while another 45 percent say they probably will go.
In another sign of strength for Kerry, he is supported by 33 percent of those definitely planning to attend the caucuses. Dean comes in second in this group with 21 percent. Edwards and Gephardt follow with 19 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
The race has seen a surprising reversal of fortunes for Dean and Gephardt, who took turns leading Iowa Polls in July and November, and for Kerry and Edwards, who lagged behind in those polls and seemed destined to finish third or worse in the caucuses. Now, all bets are off.
During polling for the Register last week, Kerry's two-day rolling average climbed from 24 percent on Tuesday and Wednesday to 29 percent on Thursday and Friday. Edwards' level of support increased a little more gradually.
Support for Dean dropped by 7 points, to 16 percent on Thursday and Friday.
"He's had just a terrible two weeks, part of which has to do with the fact his opponents have been hammering him pretty good. And part of it is self-inflicted wounds with some misstatements," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor.
In addition, "some Iowans are beginning to have reservations about whether he can win in November, and I think the undecideds are breaking to other candidates," Squire said.
The Iowa Poll shows likely caucus participants have become a little less fond of Dean. In November, 73 percent of those with an opinion about him rated their feelings toward him favorably, and 27 percent rated him unfavorably. In the new poll, 63 percent regard him favorably and 37 percent unfavorably.
By comparison, 85 percent in the latest poll say their feelings toward Edwards, a candidate running on a theme of staying positive, are favorable. Kerry's favorability rating is virtually the same at 84 percent.
Poll participant Jon Torgerson, a Drake philosophy professor from Urbandale, said Kerry was his first choice for president, but he might change his mind.
"I like his position on education, on taxes. I think he would be very good at pointing out what a bad president (George W.) Bush is," said Torgerson, 61. "Also, in a sense, I've sort of forgiven him for his bad position on the war in Iraq. The position he took (in support of the war) was a mistake and he should have known it, but I think he's learned from it."
Torgerson said he still could be persuaded to support another candidate. "I think that there are a number of good candidates, and there's just so much going on it's hard to keep track of everybody," he said. "So if someone pointed a few things out, I might very well switch. A few months ago, I was a Dean supporter, and I think Edwards has a lot going for him, too."
Besides the economy and health care, the war in Iraq has been a key issue in the race for the Democratic nomination. Dean and Kucinich have stressed their opposition to the war from the beginning. Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards voted for a resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war, but they have harshly criticized the Republican incumbent for his handling of the situation.
When Saddam Hussein was captured last month, Dean insisted that the nation wasn't any safer with the former Iraqi dictator in custody. The Iowa Poll shows 54 percent of likely caucus participants agree with Dean. Thirty-one percent say the United States is safer because of Saddam's capture.
Poll respondent Daniel Schluter is a dairy farmer from Marengo who backs Dean partly because of his anti-war stance.
"He's against the war and he does a good job with health care reform. I think he'd end up being a good leader and take America back from all the big shots," said Schluter, 32.
Each candidate has tried to make the case that he has the best chance of beating Bush in the November election. Many Democrats are upset with Bush's policies and want to settle scores from the bitterly contested 2000 election that ended in the Florida recount.
The poll shows likely caucus participants are ready to put pragmatism ahead of principle. Fifty-nine percent say it's more important that a Democratic candidate appeal to a large swath of voters across the country, while 32 percent say it's more important to have a candidate who will uphold the party's core principles.
Poll participant Michael Schroeder, 52, of Ossian is drawn to Edwards partly because he thinks the North Carolinian is more electable than other candidates.
"I like the idea he's from the South and he can pull in more of the states. I don't think anyone from the East can make it," said Schroeder, who works at a landfill.