Iowa Democrats have found their perfect candidate -- in three people.
For experience, strength and electability -- in Iowa, as nationally -- it's Hillary Clinton.
For likability, empathy and a local focus, John Edwards pushes back strongly, far more so in Iowa than nationally.
And Barack Obama has his own appeal, notably among younger Iowa voters and those looking for a new direction in politics.
The mix makes for the tightest of contests -- a three-way tie among Obama, Edwards and Clinton among likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, with 27, 26 and 26 percent support respectively. Bill Richardson, long strides back at 11 percent, is the only other candidate with better than low single-digit support.
Beyond current preferences, the candidates' support profiles provide a road map as the campaigns try to capitalize on their competing advantages in the race ahead. Much relies on their efforts, especially in a very low-participation event like the Iowa caucuses, where turnout is paramount. (The 2004 Democratic caucuses drew about 120,000 attendees. There are twice as many seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)
The poll also shows very broad satisfaction with the field, and a high level of engagement with the campaign. Seven in 10 likely Democratic caucus-goers have gotten one or more campaign telephone calls, four in 10 report attending a campaign event, and a third have received e-mails and visited candidate Web sites. One in six say they've made a campaign contribution.
Five months before the caucuses, just over four in 10 are following the race "very" closely -- nearly double the rate among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents nationally. And most like what they see: Not only are 89 percent satisfied with their choices in the Democratic race (the same as nationally, and well ahead of satisfaction among Republicans), 53 percent in Iowa are "very" satisfied, compared with 33 percent nationally.
There is, most certainly, room to move: Around four in 10 of each of the leading candidates' supporters are not "strongly" committed to their choice. At the same time, reallocating to second-choice preferences doesn't meaningfully change the three-way dead heat.
ABC News, together with WOI-TV in Des Moines, is sponsoring two candidate debates in Iowa -- one among the Republican candidates this Sunday morning (when a companion poll of Republican preferences will be released) and another among the Democrats Aug. 19.
Personal attributes matter -- especially in primaries and caucuses, because there tends to be less differentiation on the issues among same-party candidates. For Edwards, for instance, competitiveness in Iowa -- he's a distant third in national polls -- depends in part on old-fashioned time on the ground, plus a favorable personal image.
Edwards runs evenly with Clinton, and ahead of Obama, as having campaigned hardest in the state (and indeed his supporters are much more likely than his opponents to have received a campaign phone call). At the same time Edwards runs evenly with Obama -- and well ahead of Clinton -- as the "most likable" choice. Pulling from Clinton on hard work, and from Obama on personality, gives Edwards strength he lacks nationally.