A growing focus on fresh ideas coupled with lingering doubts about Hillary Clinton's honesty and forthrightness are keeping the Democratic presidential contest close in Iowa, with Barack Obama in particular mounting a strong race against the national front-runner.
Most Democratic likely voters in Iowa, 55 percent, say they're more interested in a "new direction and new ideas" than in strength and experience, compared with 49 percent in July -- a help to Obama, who holds a substantial lead among "new direction" voters.
While Clinton still leads on more personal attributes than any of her competitors, just half of Iowa Democrats in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll believe she's willing to say what she really thinks -- far fewer than say so of either Obama or John Edwards. Obama beats her by 2-1 as the most honest and trustworthy candidate. Her advantage on experience, while substantial, has softened since summer. She has notably less support in Iowa than nationally in trust to handle a variety of specific issues -- on Iraq, for example, Obama now runs evenly with her. And she's third in Iowa among men.
Overall, in current preferences, 30 percent in Iowa support Obama, 26 percent Clinton and 22 percent Edwards, with 11 percent for Bill Richardson. That's little changed since July (Edwards -4, Obama +3, both within sampling tolerances, and Clinton unchanged).
Among those who say they're "absolutely certain" to attend a caucus, Obama has 28 percent support, Clinton 26 percent -- again very close, and a contrast to Clinton's nearly 2-1 lead over Obama nationally.
Plenty of open questions remain -- including where preferences wind up at the caucuses six weeks from now and whether or how Iowans' choices resonate elsewhere. Clearly there's room to move: Forty-three percent say there's a chance they could change their minds by the Jan. 3 caucuses; 20 percent say there's a good chance of it.
ENGAGED -- It's equally clear that these Democrats are highly engaged. Fifty-three percent of likely caucus-goers are following the race very closely, more than double the level of attention among all Democrats nationally.
Other measures of the up-close-and-personal nature of the Iowa campaign are striking. Eight in 10 of those likely to attend a Democratic caucus say they've received a phone call from one or more of the campaigns. Just more than half have attended a campaign event. More than four in 10 have visited campaign Web sites. And a third say they've personally spoken with one or more candidates, or shaken his or her hand.
In few if any other states is this level of retail politics possible; low participation is a notable feature of the Iowa caucuses, with just 120,000 Democratic attendees in 2004. But involvement this year looks to be especially high: Six weeks before the 2004 caucus, 34 percent said they'd attended a campaign event. That compares with 52 percent now.