Barack Obama has pulled ahead in the race for Iowa's Democratic presidential caucuses, while the party's national frontrunner Hillary Clinton has slipped to second in the leadoff nominating state, according to The Des Moines Register's new Iowa Poll.
Despite the movement, the race for 2008's opening nominating contest remains very competitive about a month before the Jan. 3 caucuses, just over half of likely caucusgoers who favor a candidate saying they could change their minds.
Obama, an Illinois senator, leads for the first time in the Register's poll as the choice of 28 percent of likely caucusgoers, up from 22 percent in October. Clinton, a New York senator, was the preferred candidate of 25 percent, down from 29 percent in the previous poll.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who led in the Register's May poll, held steady with 23 percent, in third place, but part of the three-way battle.
The lead change appears after weeks of increasing criticism of Clinton by Obama and Edwards about her position on U.S. policy toward Iran and questions of her candor.
Meanwhile, Clinton has recently begun accusing Obama of inexperience and criticizing his proposal to expand health insurance coverage.
The poll shows what has continued to be a wide gap between the top three candidates and the remainder of the field. The telephone survey of 500 likely Democratic caucusgoers was conducted Nov. 25 to 28 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Iowa City Democrat Katharyn Browne said she abandoned her support for Clinton in the past month and now supports Obama in light of the Iran issue.
Obama spent weeks in October and November attacking Clinton's support for a measure that allowed President Bush to declare the Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, a move Obama said was a step toward war. Clinton said the measure enhanced U.S. negotiating strength with Iran.
"An Iran war terrifies me," said Browne, a 30-year-old University of Iowa student.
Browne said she feels Obama is a more inspirational candidate than Clinton, despite the intensifying crossfire between them.
"I just think that Obama is more of a positive candidate overall," she said. "Aside from the Clinton-Obama interaction lately, it's nice to hear a candidate with a positive outlook. I think our country needs that right now."
Browne, who supported Clinton early partly out of gender loyalty, represents a shift among some women caucusgoers from Clinton to Obama.
In the new poll, Obama leads with support from 31 percent of women likely attend the caucuses, compared to 26 percent for Clinton. In October, Clinton was the preferred candidate of 34 percent of women caucusgoers, compared to 21 percent for Obama.
Women represent roughly six in 10 Democratic caucusgoers, according to the new poll.
Obama also dominates among younger caucusgoers, with support from 48 percent from those younger than 35. Clinton was the choice of 19 percent in that group and Edwards of 17 percent.
The under-35 bloc represents 14 percent of Democratic caucusgoers, up from 9 percent in the October poll.
Obama has an advantage among first-time caucusgoers. He also leads among people who say they definitely will attend the caucuses.
Clinton is the top choice among caucusgoers 55 years old and older. The largest share of Democratic caucusgoers — exactly half — are in this age group.
Pleasant Hill Democrat Jack Hill is one of them. The 61-year-old salesman said Clinton is battle-tested and capable of bringing about changes on the domestic and international fronts.
"She's a tough old cookie," said Hill. "She's a tough woman and I feel we need a change from politics as usual."
Clinton continued to rate highest on key traits, such as most presidential, knowledgeable about the world, electable and experienced. She also was seen as the most ego-driven and negative.
Clinton and Obama were viewed as the most committed to public service, while Obama led on traits such as most likeable, principled and best able bring together Republicans and Democrats.
The former first lady continues to face stubborn misgivings, despite her dozens of visits to the state this year and increasing campaign presence of her husband, the popular former president.
Thirty percent of Democratic caucusgoers viewed Sen. Clinton as either mostly or very unfavorably, behind U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel. She topped the list of candidates whose nomination would be one of the biggest disappointments at 27 percent.
Other troubling news for Clinton included a sharp decline in support from members of union households, where she was the preferred candidate with support from 34 percent in the October poll. In the new poll, Clinton is third among union households with 21 percent.
Obama and Edwards have recently criticized Clinton's past support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which they argue cost the United States millions of jobs. Clinton has said recently the trade pact, enacted during her husband's first term, did not deliver.
Obama's support among caucusgoers from union households rose from 20 percent to 28 percent since the October poll, while Edwards narrowly led, rising from 24 percent to 29 percent since the October poll.
Edwards, who finished second in the 2004 caucuses, led narrowly among men in the new poll and was tied with Clinton for the favorite in Iowa's rural areas. Rural Centerville Democrat Candace Scritchfield supported Edwards in 2004 and plans to again.
"He's a very down-to-earth and trustworthy person," said Scritchfield, a 44-year-old homemaker. "He has a lot of loyalty, that I can tell."
There was little movement in the rest of the field, despite aggressive campaigning in Iowa in the eight weeks between the two polls.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson remained in fourth place as the choice of 9 percent and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden remained in fifth with 6 percent, both virtually unchanged from the October poll. All others had support from 2 percent or less.
Presidential preferences include people leaning toward supporting a candidate. Seven percent said they were uncommitted or unsure about whom to support.