DES MOINES, IOWA — Jane Halliburton dined with Joe Biden and conferred with Hillary Rodham Clinton. She talked with Barack Obama and met with Chris Dodd. She loved the pecan pie sent over by John Edwards' staff.
Any of the five "could be my candidate" by the time the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses roll around Jan. 3, she said. But only one of them will.
Even by Iowa standards, Halliburton's access to the candidates is unusual, stemming from her position as an elected supervisor in Story County in the central part of the state. Yet one month before the caucuses, she's typical of uncounted thousands of picky political shoppers, not yet ready to make decisions that will settle the first contest in the race for the White House.
Count Connie and Roger Maifield among them as they settle into their seats at the library in Allison, population 1,006 at the last census.
Waiting to hear Biden's earnest appeal for their support, she said she likes Edwards' emphasis on tackling poverty.
Her husband is interested in Bill Richardson and volunteers that Obama "has a hopeful message." Still, Roger Maifield said of Obama, "I'm not sure he has the experience." And he worries that Clinton might prove such a polarizing candidate that Republicans would retain the White House.
An hour later, Biden has impressed both of them -- to a point. "I'd still like to hear someone else," she said.
The extensive candidate shopping occurs as recent polls show an unpredictable race. A survey by The Associated Press and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed Clinton with 31 percent support and Obama with 26 percent. Edwards had 19 percent.
Additionally, 10 percent said they were undecided or declined to specify a favorite, and more than half of those surveyed said they could support any of the contenders. One-third said they feel less than strong support for their pick, indicating a potential for wholesale switching as the race heads into its final weeks.
Lavern Patrie, 76 and retired, is slowly winnowing his choices. He has seen and heard Richardson in Cedar Falls, Dodd in Waterloo, Edwards in Grundy Center and now Biden.
He has ruled out Clinton, he says, because in his view, President Bush has "more or less given her his blessing." He's not ready to decide yet, though.
It's anyone's guess how many Democrats will turn out Jan. 3. The record is slightly above 124,000, and some strategists predict the intense competition could produce thousands more next month.
Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who is neutral in the race, said he thinks at least half of all caucus-goers remain undecided or could yet change their minds. "I talked to someone the other day, and they were very excited that they had narrowed it down to their top four," he said with a chuckle.
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