Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Obama addresses a rally in Des Moines.
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama addresses a campaign rally in Des Moines on Saturday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/13/2007 12:19:04 PM ET 2007-12-13T17:19:04

After the pundits have spoken and after all the ads have dinned their messages into the minds of voters, the outcome of the first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses will be decided in living rooms like that of Catherine Hicks in Windsor Heights, a suburb of Des Moines.

Ten months ago Hicks joined a group of women in her area who decided to meet monthly to assess the candidates.

And on the day before the final Democratic debate in Iowa, Hicks hosted two members of the quartet, Margaret Weiner and Jan Hollebrands, in her living room (the fourth was out of town) for the group’s final meeting before the caucuses.

Hearing them think out loud was a way to peer into the minds of Iowa Democrats and how they come to make their choices for Jan. 3 caucuses.

“Up until today all of us would say we were thinking, we were undecided,” said Hicks.

Trust and character
“We talked about what qualities in an individual were appealing to us,” she explained. “We talked a lot about the issue of character. Could you trust this person?”

The group invited representatives of the presidential campaigns of John Edwards, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Chris Dodd to make their pitches. 

A Dodd campaign worker brought along Dodd's sister, Martha, who spent three hours with the group discussing the candidates, the issues, and some Dodd family history. In Iowa even tiny groups of voters can get such personal attention from campaigns.

The early returns from this tiny, statistically insignificant particle of the Iowa electorate look good for Obama.

Hicks is strongly leaning toward Obama, while Weiner has already contributed money to his campaign and will caucus for him. Hollebrands is leaning toward Edwards.

“My husband and I have some older friends who are convinced that a woman can not win, a black can not win,” said Weiner. “One of them was going for Biden.”

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Obama's effect on the race
She added, “I’m very aware of racism and its power in our country. I really felt, whether Obama is electable or not, I’m going to put up signs and stand up. I feel his presence in the race is important. I would like to see him president, but I want to support a country that will elect a black person if he’s the best candidate.”

Video: Obama on the Iraq war She added, “I’ve heard black people say they won’t vote for him because they think he’ll be assassinated.”

Hicks listened to Weiner and said, “A lot of people have been afraid to step forward and say, ‘yes, I’m going to support him,’ because they’re afraid to let themselves have that hope that our country really isn’t racist.”

But there is the question of Obama’s relatively slim experience in national and international politics: He was sworn in as a senator less than three years ago.

More experienced candidates available
What of the argument by Obama’s rival, Sen. Joe Biden, that he has worked with the foreign ministers and presidents of major nations ever since he came to the Senate in 1973. “Hot air,” scoffed Weiner.

“To me the experience of (Obama) working on a community organizing level shows a way of relating to people that’s important, which is helping them decided what is good for them.”

As for Biden and other congressional veterans in the race: “I don’t know how long a person could stay in elective office and keep that freshness of vision,” Weiner said.

“Joe Biden and most of the Republican candidates, and Chris Dodd as well, will say ‘I’ve had years and years of experience.’ Our point is: if you were doing a good job, why are we in such a mess, why is our world in such a mess?”

For her, Hicks said, Obama “has the greatest chance to be inspirational to the largest portion of Americans than any of the other candidates, Republican or Democrat.”

According to Democratic caucus rules in Iowa, a candidate’s supporters in any given precinct must have at least 15 percent of the attendees to win any delegates. Hicks said that if on Jan. 3 the Obama people in her caucus don’t attain 15 percent, “I’ll have to play it by ear” on which other candidate to support.

She has mixed feelings about her second choice, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

“He presents himself as a good old guy,” yet he has been “very privileged since birth, but that’s not the way he presents himself.”

Hicks is thinking more in terms of winning other caucus goers over to the Obama camp, rather than moving to a second choice. “I think I could be probably be a fairly compelling person talking about his experience and why I think he would be a good candidate,” she said.

Hollebrands said she is leaning toward Edwards. “I tried to hold off as long as possible and not make a decision,” she said.

Almost backed Edwards in 2004
“I tried to stay open because he was the one I gravitated toward four years ago.” But ultimately in 2004 she backed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. “I wish I had supported Edwards then because I was leaning toward him even then.”

This year, as the group met and and as she heard pitches from different campaigns, “I would find myself being very fickle,” being swayed by the most recent pitch she heard. “When all was said and done I just kept gravitating back toward Edwards,” she said.

“The fact that he’s had a child die makes him a very strong person,” she said. “The other thing I thought about is that he spent his life fighting large corporations and was very successful in doing that and it would have been against all odds. He has the ability to fight. Large corporations need to be balanced out by government in some way and he’s the one probably the most capable of doing that.”

As for the 15 percent rule and the possible need to switch to another candidate she said, “I feel so strongly about him that I’m not sure who would be my second choice.”

She cited a rule she heard from one of the pundits (she thinks it was James Carville) that whenever a warm candidate faces a cool candidate, the warm candidate wins and since Edwards is “the warmest candidate for me personally, I think he’d be the most likely to win against a Republican.”

What about Clinton?
After talking for 30 minutes Wednesday, none of the three women had mentioned Sen. Hillary Clinton. Finally I asked them about her.

“I don’t think she lets us know what she really thinks,” said Weiner. “I need a politician who will stick their neck and out and say what they really think.”

“I admire her; she’s an incredibly intelligent woman, she’d a hard working woman, very perceptive in terms of politics. But my problem with her — in addition to Bill — is that I think she’s a person who has blind spots. When she doesn’t want to see or believe something she has a part of her mind that is blocked off and cannot be convinced.”

Hicks thinks Clinton believes in her own invincibility. “I don’t think there’s a question in her mind she’s going to be the candidate.”

But if the skeptics such as Hicks and Weiner are multiplied by the thousands here in Iowa and in the states to follow then it is hard to see how Clinton will be the nominee.

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