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Republican candidates battle for Iowa's undecided vote

Voters are under siege by campaigns in the run-up to Tuesday's caucuses, and polls indicate many haven't made up their minds.

December 31, 2011|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • The shadow of Texas Gov. Rick Perry is cast on a flag as he campaigns in Boone, Iowa, for the Republican presidential nomination.
The shadow of Texas Gov. Rick Perry is cast on a flag as he campaigns in Boone,… (Charlie Riedel, Associated…)

Reporting from Des Moines — Iowans are under a blitzkrieg by the Republican presidential candidates. They can't go grocery shopping or stop in their neighborhood diners or turn on their televisions without stumbling over politicians making pitches.

Yet with the Iowa caucuses a mere two days away, many voters have not made up their minds. And even among those who favor a candidate, many say they could change their minds before Tuesday, when Iowa holds the first presidential voting contest in the nation.

"There has never been this many undecided voters this late in any caucus campaign I've seen. It really is remarkable," said Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. "It's still a very volatile, wide-open race."

The candidates are in a frenzy trying to sway these voters, particularly the second-tier candidates who are in statistical ties in recent polling and are trying to claw their way into a third-place finish, giving them momentum into the other early voting contests.

"Look, it's all going to be turmoil until Tuesday night, and Tuesday night, probably a third to a half of the people who walk in will be open to changing their mind to all of us," Newt Gingrich said Thursday in Sioux City. "I think everybody is trying to sort out what is going on."

Some of that sorting out may be underway.

A Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night showed Mitt Romney holding steady at 24%, but Rick Santorum surging past Ron Paul into second place at 21% in the final two days of a four-day survey. The Register poll, which carried a margin of error of 5.6 percentage points for its final two days' results, found that 41% of likely caucus-goers might still change their mind.

The late decision-making reflects several factors. The race started later than usual this year. Retail politicking, when voters can look a candidate in the eye and ask questions, went full throttle only in recent weeks. And the field has been fluid all year, with candidates surging to become front-runners only to have voters' fancy turn elsewhere.

Lorraine Martin, 62, of Fort Dodge was dedicated enough to travel more than an hour to support Santorum in the Ames straw poll over the summer. Now, Martin is leaning toward Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom she regards as a strong leader.

Asked to explain her switch, she responded, with a laugh, "So, are we all fickle?"

For many voters, the decision is a battle over whether to follow their hearts or their heads.

Terry Schumaker, 40, counted himself in these ranks until a few days ago. He identifies strongly with Santorum, but Schumaker said his ultimate goal was to nominate a candidate who could beat President Obama.

"Santorum, he's socially conservative, family values. Those are things that strike home in this part of the country," said the Mason City resident. "I just don't think he's electable."

So Schumaker, a community college administrator, decided he would likely caucus for Romney, despite less emphasis the former Massachusetts governor puts on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. "I think he's very much more electable than anybody," Schumaker said.

Fran Christian liked Gingrich for a while but was now leaning toward Perry.

"It's a tough one," said Christian, who teaches Story City eighth-graders about the Constitution. "I think character should trump everything, and yet that doesn't always seem to play out when we look at those who occupy the White House."

Dean Thompson, a small-business owner from Ames, supported businessman Herman Cain before he dropped out of the race and is struggling to pick a replacement. Each candidate has some positive traits, from Santorum's tax plan to Perry's relationship with his wife, he said.

"If we could mix 'em all into one candidate, we might be all right," Thompson said.

Caucusing in Iowa is unlike primary voting in most states, where casting a ballot takes minutes and electioneering is verboten. Caucuses are raucous affairs. At the appointed hour, voters gather at schools, churches and community centers that are festooned with signs and campaign paraphernalia.

At each of the 1,774 precincts, a supporter makes a speech on behalf of each candidate, and then voters write their choices on slips of paper — a process that can take an hour or more. The politicking occurs informally when voters chat with friends and neighbors before the caucus starts, and formally when each candidate's surrogate makes the official pitch.

This year, with so many voters not firmly committed to a candidate, these declarations will be crucial.

"Having someone who is viewed as an opinion leader in that particular community can be very persuasive to a voter back and forth between a candidate or two," said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn.

That could move voters such as Dennise Behn.

The 56-year-old nurse is debating between Santorum and Perry. After seeing the latter speak at the Gigglin' Goat in Boone on Saturday, she remained just as torn as she was when she walked into the sports bar. She said she would wait until caucus night to make a choice.

"Personally, I'm gonna just say a prayer before I go in there and I'm going to ask for God's guidance on who to vote for," Behn said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Mark Z. Barabak and Paul West contributed to this report.

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