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Inside Politics

The stubborn undecideds


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Howard Dean
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Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa (CNN) -- The latest tracking polls in Iowa show Democratic front-runner Howard Dean and Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt locked in a battle for first place less than a week before this first presidential contest.

But state party leaders -- and even Dean's national campaign manager -- say it's still anyone's race to win. (CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, told me Tuesday that Iowa caucus goers are still very unpredictable at this stage. He says the Dean campaign is finding that undecided voters can be stubborn and that locating voters -- especially younger ones -- to determine their preferences, is making forecasts unreliable.

Trippi said he can see how Gephardt -- whose organization he complimented -- could come in first or fourth next Monday.

Iowa State Democratic Chair Gordon Fischer told me he doesn't remember seeing a caucus as intensely competitive as this one. Like Trippi, Fischer is hearing that a big chunk of caucus goers are still wavering on which candidate is their first choice.

He could make a case for any of the four top candidates winning outright next Monday night (although Fischer is careful in his comments to stress he'll remain neutral).

When I sat down to interview North Carolina Sen. John Edwards on Tuesday in West Des Moines, he exuded confidence about a good showing, but refused to play the expectations game.

Edwards dismissed the talk that he and Sen. John Kerry are battling for third place -- or any other odds that pundits are tossing around, saying,"All I'm doing is out here working. I'll let you guys decide where I need to end up."

Despite a steady lead in the polls, there are signs that the Dean campaign is hearing footsteps. After slamming his opponents for their negative tone, Dean apparently decided it was time to pile on his chief rivals, coming back to the issue that propelled his candidacy into the forefront: the war in Iraq.

His campaign put out an ad to remind Iowans of where the major candidates stood on the war. In the spot Dean again casts himself as the outsider with the conviction to stand up to the president. He asks, "Where did the Washington Democrats stand on the war? Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the war."

Michael Dukakis, former 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, argued on Tuesday's "Inside Politics" that Iowa wasn't the place to game out the rest of the nomination fight. He said people make too much of the polls here and that his own experience is proof that winning in Iowa is no guarantee of a cakewalk to the nomination.

In words that must be music to the ears of Dean's opponents, Dukakis said, "These polls are notoriously unreliable in the early primaries. I mean I started at zero. The front runner in the national polls at this point in our race was Gary Hart. And he didn't make it out of Iowa. So I wouldn't say pay any attention to the numbers. It's what happens in those caucuses, it's the organization of the crowds."

While political types may be unwilling to put a big wager on Monday's results, they're confident projecting that the caucus crowds will be among the biggest ever. It's one sign that the 2004 Iowa caucuses, on so many levels, are destined for the record books.


Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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