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The Iowa Three-Way Race

The three-way race shaping up in Iowa. (AP).

There is more than enough worrisome news for Hillary Clinton in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll of Iowa Democrats to keep her political team on edge for the next 44 days.

Only half of likely caucus participants in Iowa believe she is willing to say what she really thinks about issues. They find her less honest and trustworthy than either Barack Obama or John Edwards and they rate her third behind the other Obama and Edwards on the question of which candidate best understands their problems. For a candidate running on a middle-class message, Clinton has some significant persuading left to do.

What may be even more troublesome for Clinton is the evidence that a sizeable number of Iowa Democrats who support other candidates do not cite her as their second choice. In fact, fewer Obama supporters in the current poll cite Clinton as their second choice than did in a Post-ABC poll conducted in July and Edwards's supporters are now more likely to choose Obama over Clinton as their second choice.

Many Iowa voters could change their minds between now and Jan. 3. But for whatever reason, many of those who do not now support Clinton appear disinclined to shift to her if they start looking for another candidate -- unless she can change the equation in the next few weeks.

That is contrary to the pattern that sustained John Kerry four years ago at this time. Even in the depths of Kerry's problems, when his campaign was sliding downward, his advisers took heart from that fact that he seemed acceptable across the entire spectrum of the party in Iowa. When Howard Dean began to slip, it was easy for many Iowa Democrats to shift to Kerry. It's not clear that will happen for Clinton.

What the new poll shows is exactly what the major campaigns have believed about Iowa for many months, that there is a three-way race among Clinton, Obama and Edwards. The Post-ABC poll showed Obama at 30 percent, Clinton at 26 percent and Edwards at 22 percent. That compares to the 27-26-26 result in a July poll. But it is what is underneath those ballot numbers that is most intriguing.

Obama's advisers see the results of the Post-ABC poll as validation of what they believe has been happening on the ground in Iowa and why they have sought to discount national polls that show Clinton with a substantial lead. "Iowa is close and going to remain close but we like the canvass it's playing out on," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.

Plouffe said the poll highlighted two realities that he said run counter to perceptions of Obama's campaign. First, Obama is running stronger with older voters (45 and above) than he was a few months ago, a sign that his campaign is not relying only on the votes of young people, who in the past have been far less likely to go to the caucuses.

Second, Clinton and Obama are tied among women in Iowa, in contrast to national polls that show her well ahead. Plouffe asserted that in both Iowa and New Hampshire, "The gender gap is narrowing."

Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategists, offered a strong dissent on that and other issues raised by the poll's results. In an e-mail message Tuesday, he said, "No other poll has Hillary tied among women. It is an unlikely finding given all the other polls showing her ahead with women."

Penn also argued that on the areas that count, Clinton still holds the high ground. "I think this poll shows the strengths of Senator Clinton in terms of electability, strength and leadership," he said. "These are big assets going into the homestretch."

On this, the Kerry experience should give pause to Obama rather than to Clinton. When Dean imploded, Iowa Democrats turned to Kerry not because they found him the most likable candidate but because they thought he would be their strongest general election candidate and because they believed he had the right experience to be president.

On those attributes, Clinton continues to dominate the Democratic race. Obama runs fourth in the Democratic field on the question of experience, behind Clinton, Edwards and Bill Richardson. Just 11 percent of likely caucus-goers cited Obama as the candidate with the best experience to be president. At the same time, however, Clinton slipped most dramatically on this attribute, from 50 percent in July to 38 percent last week.

Clinton's advantage on strength of leadership over Obama also narrowed between July and November, while her advantage over both Obama and Edwards on electability remained about the same.

Penn makes another point about what the poll shows about the state of the race in Iowa: "You have to bear in mind that she stayed exactly the same and that the changes for Obama are within the margin of error, and that this was done before the full impact of her very successful debate," he wrote.

Clinton advisers believe last week's debate in Las Vegas stopped a two-week slide and that Obama's sometimes-shaky performance will have consequences in Iowa, at least in the short-term.

As if to signal where the Clinton campaign may be heading, Penn observed, "They know very little about Senator Obama and so his numbers are in particular subject to a lot of change. Most voters don't even realize he was in the state senate three years ago and never voted on Iraq."

No one should ignore what the poll says about Edwards in Iowa. Certainly the other campaigns do not. They have a high regard for his organization and for the loyalty of his core supporters.

Edwards also has the highest percentage of supporters who have attended past caucuses, which means his team has less hand-holding to do to persuade them to come out on the night of Jan. 3. The question is whether that core of support now represents only a fifth to a quarter of likely caucus-goers, which is not enough to win on Jan. 3, or something significantly higher.

Where the campaign in Iowa shifted between July and November, according to the Post-ABC poll, is that a higher percentage of Iowa Democrats now say they are looking for a candidate who represents fresh ideas and a change in direction, rather than one who has strength and experience.

A 10-point tilt toward something fresh and new in July grew to a 22-point advantage in November. Obama's edge among voters looking for something new is almost identical to Clinton's advantage among those looking for strength and experience.

Clinton's challenge is either to refocus voters on the importance of experience or persuade more voters that she is a change candidate. Obama's task is to keep driving voters to downplay the importance of experience in favor of a change in direction. Edwards's job is to persuade Iowans looking for change that he can deliver and that Obama cannot.

So it will not just be the Clinton campaign on edge about Iowa for the next six weeks.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 20, 2007; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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