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Questions loaded with indecision

At campaign events, Iowans seek answers to a broad range of queries in their attempts to finally pick a candidate.

January 03, 2008|Maria L. La Ganga and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

IOWA FALLS, IOWA — It's not often you see a presidential candidate stumped on the stump.

But there was Sen. Barack Obama, fielding questions in yet another rural high school, when an Iowan stood up to ask about something that weighed on her mind: "What does your logo stand for?"

"Oh, that logo, that's easy," the senator from Illinois began, turning to ponder the O-shaped symbol with the red-and-white stripes across the bottom. "This is . . . " A pause. "Well, first of all, I didn't really design it. I don't want to pretend like I was the artist and had some grand concept.

"I, I, I, I think that the concept was, is, that you got a sun rising. And it's a new day. It's a new day. There's a horizon there. Hope. You know. And so the whole scheme going on. It works. All right . . . "

As they race across the frozen Hawkeye State struggling to seal the deal before the critical caucuses, the men and woman who would be president are facing a final blast of questions that reveal as much about the state of the race as any random-sample poll does.

At three different events on New Year's Eve, Obama was asked what he'd do about immigration. At two, he was asked whether he'd end the war. He has faced queries about how he'd pay for universal healthcare and what he'd do about the national debt. Tuesday, it was Social Security, random violence and how he planned to talk to terrorists.

There are wacky ones: Would you stand in the way of criminal charges being brought against President Bush and Vice President Cheney? And worried ones: If there were another contested election like in 2000 and 2004, would he stand up and fight or wimp out?

But mostly there are basic ones, revealing just how much caucusgoers are struggling at this late date, with so many candidates to choose from and so much at stake.

On the Democratic side, "my sense is that they like all the candidates, and they're hesitant to make a decision," said John Norris, former chairman of the state party. "It also could be information overload, which has confused them rather than help them decide."

Either way, Norris said, this is later than usual in a caucus cycle for such basic questioning from an electorate still "searching for the answer to put them over the hump."

Like Obama, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina fields caucusgoers' queries at nearly every event. His campaign has instituted an eleventh-hour program called "Ask John," with a website for Iowans to submit their questions.

Edwards, too, is fielding basic policy inquiries from those who may have read about his stands but want to hear -- up close and personal -- what he plans to do about healthcare, veterans services, Social Security, taxes.

At an event in Clinton on Friday, one man asked Edwards why he voted as a senator to authorize going to war with Iraq but now opposes the war. "I decided that information [then available] was credible, and I relied on it, and I was wrong," Edwards replied. "That's not somebody else's fault; that's my fault. I was wrong."

In contrast, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton took criticism when she eschewed all caucusgoers' questions last week. She has since eased up that policy. On Saturday, she was asked about how she would deal with Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto's assassination, and whom she would name to be her secretary of State if she were to return to the White House.

"I'm superstitious!" she declared. "I just can't think about that."

Republican Mitt Romney hasn't opened up the floor for questions since he returned to the Iowa campaign trail Friday -- although the former Massachusetts governor talks to caucusgoers after events such as a series of house parties New Year's Day.

"We've done endless town-hall meetings in Iowa," said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. "We'll do that [again] in New Hampshire."

Obama views his last-minute question-and-answer sessions as a crucial means of roping in the undecided. And he tries hard not to call on solid supporters when he invites questions at the end of an event.

"I'd love to have those questions come from someone who is undecided," he said Monday afternoon in Boone. One of his targets was the Rev. Tim Trudeau, pastor of Grace Community Church in Boone and a man so deeply undecided he's not sure which party he'll caucus for when the opportunity arises tonight.

Trudeau's question: What will you do about the national debt?

Obama's answer: End the war in Iraq. Roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Reform the healthcare system.

The result: "I like what I heard today," Trudeau said, but he was still undecided when he headed home. "I can't say what's holding me back."


Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

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