By McClatchy Newspapers
AMES — Shifts happen in the 48 hours before Iowa caucuses, and Sunday it was clear that the outcome of the nation’s first presidential voting Tuesday depends on a huge army of undecided, wavering Iowa caucusgoers.
Forty-one percent said they could still be persuaded to support another candidate, while only 51 percent say their minds are made up, according to a Des Moines Register Iowa poll taken Tuesday through Friday.
McClatchy interviews with voters throughout the state found that they tend to like something about all six major Republican candidates, but there’s also usually something that makes them uneasy.
It could be Mitt Romney’s changes in positions, Ron Paul’s foreign policy, Rick Perry’s gaffes, Newt Gingrich’s history of controversy or a sense that Rick Santorum can’t beat President Barack Obama.
Many voters were deciding by spending the holiday weekend seeing candidates.
“It’s such an opportunity to see candidates up close. There’s nothing like it,” said Maribeth Waldman, a small-business owner in Boone.
This state of uncertainty has characterized the entire campaign. Just since Thanksgiving, polls have shown momentum for Gingrich, the former House speaker; Paul, a Texas congressman; Romney, a former Massachusetts governor; and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
“Republican caucusgoers are looking for that perfect candidate who doesn’t exist,” said Timothy Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “They see a chance to beat an incumbent president, one whose policies they absolutely do not like. So they don’t want to make a mistake.”
The people at the rallies and town halls have several reasons for being uncertain.
Often there’s just enough doubt about a candidate to make them wary.
“I’m totally undecided, and I have no idea what’s going to tip the balance. I like 90 percent of what Ron Paul believes in,” said Peggy Coleman, a substitute teacher in Perry. “But I’m scared of his foreign policy. We’d have a weaker military.” Paul advocates a significantly reduced U.S. role in foreign affairs.
Sometimes voters want to see and study each candidate, which is easy to do since they have been traveling to every niche of the state in recent days.
“I haven’t been convinced yet,” said Leah Fonua, a Toledo children’s health care coordinator who saw Romney in Ames.
And sometimes they’re close to a decision but want to be absolutely sure.
“I’m struggling a little bit between who I want and who is the most electable,” said Rachel Coder, an Ames elementary school aide. “I agree a lot with what Perry says, but I don’t feel he’s going to come out of Iowa in a way that will carry him to (ultimate) victory.”
The maybes have this much in common: They want someone who has solid family values, will lower taxes, will provide incentives for private industry to create jobs and will get rid of the 2010 federal health care law, which will require nearly everyone to get coverage by 2014.
What usually gives them pause when considering a candidate is a desire to feel comfortable about their electability.
Santorum gets high marks throughout the state as a standup conservative, but the electability issue keeps dogging him.
“Santorum is interesting to me,” said Don Loy, an agriculture professor at Iowa State University. “But I think Romney’s the one who can defeat Obama, and that’s what you want.”