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Candidates home in on the undecided

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / December 27, 2007

DES MOINES - With thousands of undecided voters still up for grabs in the final week before voting begins, the leading presidential contenders yesterday aimed their closing arguments at those still settling on a candidate or just tuning into the most wide-open nomination races in decades.

Their two-day Christmas break over, most candidates resumed campaigning in Iowa, where Democrats and Republicans will caucus one week from today, and where, like New Hampshire, voters are still weighing the two fields carefully.

Just 38 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats in Iowa have decided whom to support, the most recent CNN poll indicates, while the rest are either undecided or only leaning toward a candidate and thus open to per suasion.

In New Hampshire, where the primary comes five days after Iowa, only 28 percent of likely Democratic voters and 35 percent of Republicans have made up their minds, according to a Globe survey published Sunday.

With that in mind, the candidates, in a blitz of appearances and new television ads, sought to frame the election in clear terms for undecided voters in both states.

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, whose leads over the Democratic field in early-voting states have evaporated, returned to the theme of experience, hoping voters will ultimately want a leader with a deep Washington résumé.

In a joint rally yesterday with former President Clinton in Iowa and a new television ad to begin airing today in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton argued that she alone has the seasoning, track record, and "steady hand" to usher in a "new beginning" at the White House and "restore this country to greatness."

"Hillary has an unbroken record of making decisions that made a positive change in other people's lives," Bill Clinton told an overflow crowd of more than 300 at Mount Pleasant Community High School.

"We need someone who's prepared from the first day to make those tough decisions," added former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, echoing a Clinton campaign memo that outlined her message in the closing days. The memo asserted that with a "war abroad and a troubled economy at home," the times "demand a President who is tested, ready to lead on Day 1, and offers real solutions to the big challenges we face."

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the foil in Clinton's pitch of experience, also campaigned across Iowa yesterday, telling voters that experience means little if it means repeating the same mistakes over and over.

In Mason City, he made a veiled reference to a recent comment by Bill Clinton that voting for Obama would be like a "roll [of] the dice." Obama, according to NBC News, characterized the former president's remark this way: "So even though you know what's been done in the past doesn't work, stick with it."

Obama, who is scheduled to sum up his case in a broad, thematic speech today in Des Moines, also tried to differentiate himself as the true candidate of change, contending that his rivals were merely appropriating his message.

"Everybody now is talking about change," he said. "If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then we're doing pretty good."

Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who is claiming momentum in the closing weeks, spent the day in New Hampshire, but is slated to return to Iowa today to kick off a bus tour focusing on the plight of the middle class, which he says has been decimated by corporate greed and wrong-headed priorities in Washington.

Jonathan Prince, his deputy campaign manager, argued yesterday in a memo that Edwards has not only risen a few percentage points in Iowa polls, but is drawing larger crowds and seeing more grass-roots activity.

"We enter the final week before the Iowa Caucus in a position of strength," Prince wrote, predicting that Clinton will prey on voters' fears about national security over the next week while Obama continues to go after Edwards.

Polls suggest a tight contest among the top three Democrats in Iowa. Clinton and Obama are neck and neck for the lead in New Hampshire, the Globe poll indicated.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, who once held sizable leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, now finds himself threatened in both states. Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has come from nowhere to overtake him in Iowa, and Senator John McCain of Arizona has pulled into a statistical tie in New Hampshire in the latest Globe poll.

Romney, who spent yesterday in New Hampshire and plans to campaign there today as well, told reporters in Henniker, N.H., that he is the only Republican making a strong push in both states and that doing well in both was important for any GOP candidate trying to prove they can win in the general election.

Huckabee, meanwhile, spent yesterday morning hunting pheasants in Osceola, Iowa. He presented an image of an experienced outdoorsman - a thinly-veiled contrast to Romney, who earlier in the campaign stumbled when he claimed to have been a hunter all his life and to have the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. He later acknowledged that neither was true.

A shotgun under his arm, Huckabee also told reporters that a series of Romney mailings and television ads attacking his record on crime and illegal immigration are negative attacks from a fading candidate.

Huckabee later flew to Florida to raise money, but is scheduled to be back in Iowa tonight.

Notably absent from Iowa or New Hampshire yesterday was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose three-day swing through Florida that began yesterday underscored his focus on states that vote after Iowa and New Hampshire. Giuliani's campaign said he will be back in the two states over the weekend.

Polls indicate he is in third or fourth place in both states.

Michael Kranish of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Henniker, N.H., Globe correspondent James W. Pindell contributed from Conway, N.H., and Globe correspondent Erik Owomoyela contributed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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