Still Undecided in Iowa's Three-Way Race
By Peter Slevin
DES MOINES -- Marilyn Heaps-Nelson Bull is undecided. And, boy, would the leading Democratic candidates like to change that.
Not that they know her, but they covet the demographic she represents. At 61, she is an unassuming retired physical therapist from Des Moines. She has never caucused before. In fact, she voted for a Republican named George W. Bush in 2000. But then he started the Iraq war and, as she sees it, took away American civil liberties.
So this year she intends to caucus -- and caucus for a Democrat.
"There's so much riding on this," Bull said this week as she waited for John Edwards to appear at a rally inside the ornate Temple for the Performing Arts in Des Moines. "I'm looking for some change."
Bull stood quietly on the side as steelworkers in bright T-shirts waved signs and chanted, "We love Elizabeth! We love John! We want to see them on the White House lawn!"
She never took off her winter coat as perhaps 300 people strolled into the hall along with a sizeable media contingent on hand to assess Edwards's strength against Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Polls continue to show a persistently close race, with Edwards always slightly behind the other two, with plenty of Iowans still unsure.
Bull considers Obama likable but unseasoned and Clinton too abrasive. Edwards, though, comes across as "just more personally for the people." She showed up to watch him, hoping to walk out the door a committed supporter, her decision at long last made.
As the spirited piped-in music stopped and the speeches began, Bull was excited to see Elizabeth Edwards and Mari Culver, the wife of Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, climb onstage. Culver, a lawyer and women's advocate, called Edwards a candidate who can win "not just the caucuses, but the general election, too."
Bull smiled and quietly applauded, still wearing her woolen gloves.
So far, so good.
Her support was there for the taking as Edwards took the stage, looking and sounding upbeat, wearing a dark suit and pale blue tie in place of his usual faded campaign trail jeans. Early in his 15-minute speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by cheers from the faithful, she was feeling encouraged.
But then Edwards amped up his populist attacks on big business. He told how he was the right man for what he predicted would be an "epic fight." He said, in a familiar line from his stump speech, that only a tough president can stand up to drug companies, insurance companies, defense contractors and their lobbyists.
"When they give up their power," he called out, "is when we take their power away from them!"
He went on to tell of a lesson he learned from his millworker father when Johnny Edwards, then 4 or 5 years old, came home bloody from a playground fight. His father told him not to start any fights, but not to "ever, ever run away from a fight."
"I want you to go out there tomorrow," the father told the teary-eyed boy, "and I want you to find that kid who kicked your butt. I want you to kick his butt. I want you to fight with everything you've got."
And that's where Edwards lost Bull.
To her ear, and to her sense of how to make progress, the skilled former trial lawyer sounded too pugnacious. She echoed a view frequently spoken from one segment of a divided electorate this campaign season that going toe-to-toe is not the right approach.
"I'm not angry. I'm not against corporate America. My kids work for Intel. It's important what they're doing," Bull explained as the crowd filed into the bright 26-degree afternoon. "I'd be interested to see if the other candidates have a little more willingness to work together."
Her status: Still undecided.
"I don't know what I'm going to do."
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