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.
TWO RESULTS -- Two notable results underscore vulnerabilities for Clinton that work to Obama's advantage. One, as noted, is that just 50 percent believe she's willing enough to say what she really thinks, vs. three-quarters who say this about Obama and Edwards alike -- fallout, perhaps, from her recent debate performance. And among the 45 percent who don't see Clinton as forthright, her support's in the single digits.
Better yet for the Obama camp is that only a third of Iowa Democrats now say "strength and experience" is more important to them in a candidate; 55 percent instead put more emphasis on "a new direction and new ideas," which he's tried to make his trademark.
Among those "new direction" voters, 43 percent prefer Obama, while just 17 percent go for Clinton -- a major component of his support. Among voters more concerned with strength and experience, 38 percent prefer Clinton, vs. just 12 percent for Obama.
ATTRIBUTES -- But if Clinton is vulnerable on some personal measures, so is Obama -- notably in having "the best experience to be president" in which he runs fourth, behind Clinton, Edwards and Richardson alike. Still, while just 11 percent pick Obama as having the best experience, the biggest change from July is in the number who pick Clinton in this measure -- 38 percent now, down from 50 percent then.
Obama is within sight of Clinton on another of her main features, an image of strong leadership: Thirty-two percent call her the strongest leader, vs. 27 percent for Obama; it was 36-23 percent last summer. And both Obama and Edwards lead Clinton in honesty and trustworthiness, and in empathy, two relative weaknesses for her nationally as well.
Clinton retains her lead in being seen as the most electable candidate, though it's much less of an advantage in Iowa than nationally. And few fault her effort: She also leads as the candidate who's campaigned hardest in the state.
ISSUES -- As noted, Clinton also has much less of a lead in Iowa than she's enjoyed nationally in trust to handle a range of specific issues. Indeed in Iowa she has the edge on just one of six issues tested in this poll, health care. She and Obama run about evenly in trust to handle four others -- the economy overall, Social Security, Iraq and Iran.
Clinton trails off on a sixth issue, immigration; on that it's about an even choice between Obama and Richardson, the governor of New Mexico.
Comparisons to national data are striking. In an ABC/Post poll early this month, for example, Clinton led Obama by 2-1 in trust to handle the situation in Iraq. In this poll 26 percent of likely caucus-goers pick Obama on that issue -- up by 9 points from July -- while 23 percent take Clinton, down by 6.
Yet it's notable, too, that in Iowa none of Clinton's challengers has a significant lead on any of these.
Separately, Iowa Democrats cite Iraq as the single most important issue in their choice (33 percent), with health care a close second, cited by 26 percent. Ten percent say it's the economy, with all other mentions in the single digits. (Among Democrats nationally, Iraq is farther out front as the top concern, with the economy alongside health care as No. 2.)
GROUPS -- A look at candidate preferences among groups fleshes out their campaigns' support profiles -- crucial as they seek to motivate supporters to turn out for the caucuses. (One factor -- their supporters' levels of enthusiasm -- is about even.)
As noted, Clinton has a particular problem in Iowa with men -- just 19 percent support, vs. her 31 percent support among women. Obama and Edwards alike lead her among men, and Richardson is within sampling error.
Among women, meanwhile, Clinton and Obama run about evenly, compared with a more than 2-1 Clinton lead nationally. (Clinton leads in Iowa among single women, but trails Obama among those who are married.)
Most Iowa Democrats say the fact that Clinton would be the first woman president doesn't directly influence their choice; however among women 19 percent, nearly one in five, say it does make them more likely to support her.
Apart from women, Obama does notably better, and Clinton less well, among independents rather than registered Democrats (35 percent of independents support Obama vs. 18 percent for Clinton). That's potentially a challenge for him because it can be tougher to get independents to turn out.
Similarly, Obama does better among younger Iowans, and also among those who say it'll be their first caucus (about a third of all likely caucus-goers). Clinton, however, also does better among first-timers; she needs their turnout as much as Obama does, or more.
The edge turns to Obama among the most highly educated voters, a reliably high turnout group; he has 37 percent among those who've done post-graduate work (a fifth of all likely caucus-goers) vs. just 16 percent for Clinton, her weakest education group by far.
Perhaps the largest change in any individual groups has been at Edwards' expense -- a drop in support among older voters in Iowa, which had been his best group. Among those age 65 and over, just 18 percent now support him, down from 36 percent in July. Among seniors -- another normally high-turnout group -- Clinton now leads.
A final change in Iowa, less fortuitous for Clinton, is among political moderates; her support in this group has slipped to 19 percent, again in third place behind Obama and Edwards. She does better with liberals, but there are fewer of them.
SAMPLING and TURNOUT -- Turnout matters especially in low-attendance events like caucuses. This poll was conducted by telephone calls to a random sample of Iowa homes with landline phone service. Adults identified as likely caucus-goers account for 14 percent of respondents; the subgroup of those who say they're certain to attend account for just under 9 percent (with, as noted, no significant change in results). These compare to turnout in 2004 of 5 percent of the state's voting-age population.
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 14-18, 2007, among a random sample of 500 Iowan adults likely to vote in the 2008 Democratic presidential caucus. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.