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When coming in second may mean a win

On Iowa caucus night, backers of Democrats who fall short can pick a new candidate. The front-runners are ready.

January 01, 2008|Peter Wallsten and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — The top three Democratic presidential candidates have begun focusing intensely on becoming the second choice among supporters of less-popular candidates such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in a behind-the-scenes battle that could decide the outcome of Thursday's Iowa caucuses.

The effort, in which the top campaigns are deploying an array of strategies, focuses on the brief and unpredictable moment that will occur just after the first votes are cast in the state's 1,781 caucus meetings.

Under the unusual rules of the Democratic caucuses, candidates who do not win a minimum level of support in a precinct are eliminated from consideration there, freeing their supporters to back other candidates. More than 15% of caucusgoers are thought to be backing candidates likely to be eliminated in many balloting locations -- turning their supporters into potential king-makers in the close contest among Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

The Clinton, Obama and Edwards campaigns are focusing on what their local captains should do once this large bloc of voters becomes available -- in the few moments when victory may rest on the ability to swing voters, in face-to-face appeals and cajoling, toward their second choice.

Trying to leave little to chance, Clinton's campaign has given its local precinct captains paper cards that lay out arguments targeted to supporters of each of the candidates who might be eliminated in the first round of balloting.

Supporters of Richardson, who has called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, are to be assured that the New York senator would end the Iraq war as well, the cards say. To win over supporters of Biden, whose most resonant strength during the campaign has been his long experience in foreign policy, the Clinton captains are instructed to emphasize Clinton's own foreign policy experience and her desire to restore U.S. standing in world opinion.

Backers of Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd are to be told that, like him, Clinton has vast government experience.

The cards ask Clinton's supporters to approach their second-choice targets "with kindness," and to imagine how it would feel to have their own first choice eliminated. "Put yourself in their shoes," read the talking points.

"It's a lot of pressure," said Marti Anderson, a Des Moines precinct captain for Clinton. "It's like diplomacy. You have to find common ground."

Obama campaign aides are preparing precinct captains with detailed lists of likely caucusgoers who have named the Illinois senator as their second choice, giving campaign volunteers the information they need to make face-to-face pitches amid the activity on caucus night.

There are signs that Edwards has the most to gain from second-choice picks, whereas Clinton may have the toughest time wooing those second-round votes.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey of Iowa Democrats published last week showed that Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who surged four years ago to a surprising second-place finish in the caucuses, was the second choice of 23% of likely caucusgoers, compared with 20% who cited Obama as a second choice and 15% for Clinton.

Among the 13% of likely caucusgoers who planned to back Richardson or Biden, Edwards was named by a convincing plurality as the second choice.

Some strategists believe that Edwards owed his success in 2004 to the fact that he was a popular second choice in that contest, benefiting as Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, who had been front-runners, destroyed each other's chances with attack ads.

Edwards also benefited from a last-minute deal with Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, a bottom-tier contender then and now, who directed his supporters to back Edwards if Kucinich was not viable in their precincts. It appears that no such deals exist now, but strategists for several campaigns said that such a move would take place only in the final hours before the caucuses.

Remarks by Clinton in a recent debate, in which she joked about an experienced governor making a good vice president, touched off speculation that Richardson may seek a pact with Clinton in hopes of securing a spot as her running mate. Both campaigns deny a deal is in the offing.

Officials from the Biden and Richardson campaigns said their primary goal was to reach viability; candidates must win support from at least 15% of caucusgoers in a precinct or be eliminated there. They said there was no plan to forge an alliance.

But the front-running campaigns are closely eyeing supporters of those campaigns -- and the supporters are eyeing the front-runners.

Gene Blanshan, a 59-year-old farmer, turned up at an Obama appearance Monday in the town of Jefferson to quiz his potential No. 2 pick.

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