DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa - Weeks of relentless pounding by his Democratic opponents appear to have done little to dim Howard Dean's appeal in Iowa, putting the former Vermont governor in position for a major victory in this state's presidential caucuses next week.
Dean has opened up a 7-percentage-point edge over his nearest rival here, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, in a new Tribune Newspapers Poll. Gephardt, from neighboring Missouri, finished first in the caucuses 16 years ago and has called Iowa a must-win for him.
Dean's advantage is slightly larger than his lead in another Iowa survey released last week, which showed him four points ahead of Gephardt, but is within the Tribune poll's error margin.
According to the new statewide poll, Dean was the first choice of 30 percent of likely caucus-goers, followed by Gephardt, with 23 percent. Sen. John Kerry was within striking distance of second, at 18 percent, followed by Sen. John Edwards, who appears to have gained ground in recent weeks and was at 11 percent.
Rounding out the field are retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is not actively competing here, 4 percent; Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, 3 percent; and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who is also skipping Iowa, 2 percent. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who have spent little time in the state, each drew less than 1 percent.
The survey of 640 likely caucus-goers, completed Thursday, has a margin of possible sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted by Susan Pinkus of the Los Angeles Times for the Tribune Co., which owns The Sun.
Dean, the front-runner nationally in the Democratic contest, began surging to the front in Iowa late last summer. Since mid-November, he has maintained a lead of between 4 and 8 points in other public polls.
Dean's insurgent candidacy is drawing support across a broad range of Iowans, with conservatives as likely as liberals to say they'll back him. He is also doing better than Gephardt among union members, though the congressman, a longtime favorite of organized labor, has more union endorsements.
While Dean's support has appeared to remain steady for more than a month, the new survey found that voter sentiment is fluid, indicating that last-minute events could scramble the outcome on caucus night, one week from tomorrow.
After being courted assiduously by the candidates for many months, only about one in 10 Democratic caucus-goers is undecided. But more than one in three said they might change their minds and support a different candidate between now and Jan. 19.
The poll findings offer at least a glimmer of hope to several candidates chasing the favorites, particularly Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards. When voters were asked about their second choice, they were as likely to name Kerry or Edwards as Dean or Gephardt. That group of potential switchers includes roughly two in five supporters of Dean, whose candidacy could suffer nationally if he falters here after becoming the presumed front-runner.
Dean supporter Jody McDanel, 51, a farmer in Appanoose County, near the state's southern border with Missouri, said he would switch to Edwards - because he thinks the North Carolinian can win in the South - if events force him to change his mind. He doesn't expect to abandon Dean, however.
"There's always a chance that it might happen, but it probably won't," said McDanel, who last attended a caucus as a George McGovern backer in 1972.
There might have been less good news in the poll for Gephardt, whose chances of becoming the nominee would likely vanish with an Iowa defeat.
Gephardt has been unable to gain on Dean, despite devoting considerable time and money to this state. And when weak supporters of other candidates were asked to name their second choice, they were more likely to switch to Dean, Kerry or Edwards, the poll found.
At the same time, the support Gephardt does have, nurtured for the better part of two decades, is the most solid of any of the candidates. Fewer than one-third of his supporters said they could end up choosing another candidate, while half of Kerry's supporters, for example, said they might.
One of the poll's most striking findings was the depth of anti-Bush sentiment among the caucus electorate, which holds a much more negative view of the president than do Democrats nationally. Only 15 percent said they approved of the way Bush was doing his job; by comparison, a poll last month by the Pew Research Center found that 30 percent of Democrats nationally approved of his performance.
Iowa's Democratic caucus-goers are also decidedly more downbeat about the way things are going in the country. Four out of five agreed that things had gotten seriously off track; nationally, by contrast, a recent Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that most Americans are satisfied with the way things are going, by a 55-to-43 margin.
The anti-Bush mood, which has set the tone for the Iowa campaign and helped fuel Dean's rise, reflects the liberal tilt of those who say they plan to participate in the caucuses. Democratic voters split almost evenly when asked whether choosing a candidate who has the best chance of beating Bush was more important than picking a candidate who agreed with them on most issues.
Despite their discontent with the president, these Democrats are guardedly optimistic about the chances of unseating him in November. Almost three-fourths of those surveyed said they thought Bush was at least somewhat vulnerable in his bid for re-election.
Democratic politicians widely regard the war in Iraq as the dominant, if not decisive, issue in the nomination contest, including in Iowa, which has a sizable group of pacifist voters.
By better than a 2-to-1 margin, likely caucus-goers agreed that Iraq had not been worth going to war over and said they would prefer to see their party nominate someone who opposed the war. But by a lopsided margin, three out of four Democrats in the poll said they would vote for a candidate who differed from them on the war so long as the candidate agreed with them on most other issues.
And when likely caucus-goers were asked what issue they would like to hear the candidates discuss, health care was the top choice.
That reflects, in part, the peculiar nature of the voting here, in which older voters typically play the dominant role. Almost nine of 10 Iowa Democrats who said they planned to attend a caucus were over 45, and one in four were 65 or older, according to the poll.
But younger voters appear to hold the balance of power. In the poll, Dean and Gephardt were in a statistical tie among older voters, who are historically more likely to turn out.
Voters between 18 and 44, however, were more than four times as likely to pick Dean rather than Gephardt. One indicator of Dean's strength, which other campaigns are watching here as a clue to the way the nomination contest will go in the rest of the country, will be his organization's ability to get its youthful backers, many of whom are new to the process, to show up for a caucus.
At a caucus, which typically lasts for much of the evening, voters must publicly declare their support for a candidate. If a candidate fails to attract a minimum number of supporters - 15 percent at some caucuses - those voters will be invited to back a more viable contender.
Campaigns can try to throw their support to rival candidates for tactical reasons. For instance, when state Attorney General Tom Miller, a Lieberman backer, announced Friday that he was endorsing Kerry, it prompted speculation that the Lieberman campaign would try to get its Iowa supporters to caucus for Kerry as a means of boosting him into second place and making it more difficult for Clark to crowd Lieberman out of the race with a strong finish in New Hampshire.
Lieberman, who isn't campaigning actively in Iowa, drew support from 2 percent of likely caucus-goers in the poll. Kerry's campaign is hoping he can pick up enough support to nose out Gephardt in Iowa. That could give the Massachusetts senator a boost in his attempt to overtake Clark in New Hampshire.
A strong New Hampshire showing by Clark could make him a finalist against Dean, as the campaign heads south at the end of the month. The latest polls in New Hampshire show Dean with a lead of about 15 percent over Clark, who has pulled ahead of Kerry there.
How the Tribune poll in Iowa was conducted
The Tribune Newspapers Poll, conducted by the polling unit of the Los Angeles Times, contacted 3,629 adults in Iowa, including 640 Democratic caucus voters, by telephone Monday through Thursday.
Phone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in Iowa. Random digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers were contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education in the state.
The margin of sampling error for Democratic caucus voters is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain subgroups, the error margin might be somewhat higher.
Poll results can also be affected by factors such as a question's wording and the order in which questions are presented.