BAGHDAD — A mild-mannered middle school teacher, Raad Khafaji is a hot property as Iraq counts down to its parliamentary election.
Khafaji is a secular Shiite Muslim who drinks alcohol and is married to a Sunni Muslim engineer. That might make him a natural supporter of the like-minded slate led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, perceived as Washington's favored candidate. But Khafaji said he may yet vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, a large coalition of Shiite religious parties with strong ties to neighbor Iran.
Torn between Allawi, a secular Shiite who represents his ideology and lifestyle, and the Alliance, which represents his sect, Khafaji is the kind of undecided voter who could tip the balance in Thursday's election, political insiders and experts say.
"There's a real struggle between hearts and minds in these voters," said the director of an Iraqi polling institute, who asked that his name and that of his firm not be published for security reasons.
Most Iraqi voters are believed to have made up their minds on the election long ago, their choice often determined by ethnic or sectarian allegiance. But, according to the polling institute, in a survey in November about 18% of Iraqi voters identified themselves as undecided.
In an election that has broad implications for the United States and the Middle East, the secular and religious camps have fine-tuned their campaigns to appeal to those swing voters -- Allawi by taking off his tie and trying to appear less Western, the devout Shiites by trying to appear less religious.
"We say to this group, 'We do not want an Islamic government, we want a democratic government," said Ridha Taqi, a strategist and candidate for the United Iraqi Alliance, which won a commanding 48% of the popular vote in the last election, in January, and a narrow majority of assembly seats.
"We talk about freedom. We tell them we will not bother anyone nor take away their freedoms," he said.
The Alliance is led by cleric Abdelaziz Hakim and Islamic scholar and physician Ibrahim Jafari, now serving as transitional prime minister, but it has taken steps to counter the impression that it will create an Islamic state in the mold of Iran.
In its bid to retain control of the government, the alliance has been hanging banners proclaiming itself "the No. 1 defender of women's rights."
It has distributed faux leather business portfolios emblazoned with the bloc's logo to appeal to technocrats. It has produced a CD with catchy pop songs proclaiming, "Vote for the Alliance, the voice of cheering and happiness."
Allawi's bloc, the Iraqi National List, which hopes to challenge the ascendant religious Shiites and move the country closer to the United States and its allies in the Arab world, is also wooing the undecideds.
"There's a voter who is 100% for them, there's another kind of voter who is 100% for us, and there's another percentage who will be influenced by the campaign," said Izzat Shahbandar, a political strategist for the Iraqi National List, which won 40 of the National Assembly's 275 seats in the last election. "That's why our campaign is aimed at these people. They are very important."
The ambivalence among Shiite moderates contrasts with the intransigence that characterizes much of Iraq's contemporary political culture.
Nearly all of Iraq's Kurds are expected to vote for the large ethnic slate led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani.
Iraq's Sunni Arab minority largely boycotted the January polls, the country's first election in the post-Saddam Hussein era. This time, they appear ready to vote for either of two Sunni tickets or for Allawi, a former member of Hussein's Baath Party who has included prominent nationalist Sunnis in his coalition list.
Shiites living in agricultural hamlets throughout the country's river deltas are almost certain to cast their votes for 555, the ballot number for the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which has the tacit backing of the sect's clerical hierarchy.
That leaves the country's sizable Shiite middle class as the only major demographic up for grabs in the election. They're often members of the country's vast civil service or other professionals, and live in large cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriya and southern provinces such as Muthanna and Maysan.
Though largely secular and ideologically close to Allawi, their "reflex is to vote useful," said a political insider with ties to both the Allawi and Alliance camps who did not want to be identified. These voters worry that a ballot for the Allawi coalition could be a wasted one if much of the rest of the country is voting along sectarian lines.
"Sunnis are voting for Sunnis and Kurds for Kurds," said Khafaji, who said he had been leaning toward the Iraqi National List but now favored the Alliance. "The decision inside me, too, is shifting toward my sect."