Tom Curry, msnbc.com
Levi Van Oort, right, seen here with his wife Jen at the Iowa Democrats' Steak Fry last September, was an Obama fan then and will caucus for him Thursday night.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/3/2008 1:11:19 PM ET 2008-01-03T18:11:19

Iowans vote Thursday night, so let’s check the political pulse of Democrats we’ve interviewed this year.

Some of these Iowa Democrats I’ve known for several years, such as Mason City attorney Tim Lapointe; others, like Levi Van Oort, from Clarence, Iowa, I’ve met at campaign events over the past few months.

Democrats in Iowa, like Democrats elsewhere, figure their party’s presidential nominee has a better than even chance of winning the White House in November.

Since they’re the surrogates for Democrats in other states, Iowa Democrats don’t want to get this decision wrong — as they did in 2004 by giving John Kerry a victory in the caucuses here and launching him on his way to the nomination.

In one of her final campaign stops Wednesday, Sen. Hillary Clinton appealed to Iowans to act as trustees for “those who don’t even live in Iowa. They’re going to be turning on their TV sets Thursday night to see what you decide.”

Lapointe, who was the Cerro Gordo County Democratic chairman from 1998 to 2004 and an ardent Howard Dean supporter four years ago, said, “Hillary Clinton strikes me as more presidential” than her rivals. “That is a main reason I am supporting her.”

Obama: 'too glib'
“Obama seems a bit too glib and he seems to say the same things over and over, without adding anything to the substance of his position, like a rock star singing the same great songs over and over again,” said Lapointe. He has seen both Clinton and Barack Obama three times.

As for 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, Lapointe said, “I love his new message, but there is still that undefinable quality about him which I will always see as second or third place.” He has seen Edwards on the campaign trail “at least four times in the last four years.”

Lapointe regrets that Delaware Sen. Joe Biden — a sentimental favorite of many in Iowa —“didn't gain any momentum early.”

He calls Biden “perhaps the brightest of the bunch” and adds that “he has found a recent (within the last six months) ability to curtail his rambling — something Chris Dodd hasn't figured out yet.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson “will be great as Hillary's VP, but not ready for top spot,” Lapointe said, He has seen Biden twice and Richardson once.

A Ron Paul Democrat
Robbie Porter-Risdal, a Democrat from Sioux City, was undecided and shopping for a candidate when we first interviewed her last September at a Biden campaign event.

Porter-Risdal was a staunch Howard Dean supporter in the 2004 caucuses.

Robbie Porter-Risdal, a Howard Dean backer in 2004, is supporting Republican Ron Paul this year
But she has decided to support Republican Dr. Ron Paul. “He is the only one talking about the North American Superhighway” to speed traffic between Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

“I asked Edwards about it Sunday night at an event in Sioux City, and he said he didn’t believe in it, but that was pretty much all he said,” Porter-Risdal explained.

She has seen every contender in person and has seen Paul twice. In addition to the North American Superhighway, she is also concerned about a plan for further integration of the North American economies and “the Amero, the money they’re going to bring in to try to replace U.S. currency.”

She said she found Edwards at his Sunday event “real; there was no false bravado” and “I absolutely adored his wife,” but she can’t support him because “my conscience won’t let me do it.”

She said her Democratic friends are frustrated by her decision to back Paul. “All my Democratic friends are saying, ‘Oh, come on….’ But I have to go with my conscience.”

Carole Waterman, a Democrat from Osceola, Iowa who I first interviewed in 2006 when she showed up for a speech by Sen. Evan Bayh, — who was at that point tentatively running for the Democratic nomination — was an Edwards fan in 2004. She will caucus for him again tonight.

She said both former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife Christy, who are both friends of hers, had appealed to her to vote for Clinton but she was staying true to Edwards. “I feel very loyal to Edwards. He is a very caring person.”

Her allegiance to Edwards goes back to 2003 when she had a one-on-one conversation with him about her son who was then serving in the Army in Iraq.

She has been to an Obama rally, but she finds something lacking in him. “I don’t feel he has the compassion. The Obama rally was very staged — much more so than the Edwards rallies.”

West Des Moines Democrat James Flanagan was a committed Edwards supporter back on Sept. 16 when we interviewed him at Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry and will caucus for Edwards tonight.

“I was impressed by the more than 3,000 people who showed up for John Edwards rally last night at the Val Air Ballroom,” Flanagan reported Thursday morning.

“If my fellow Edwards supporters turn out tonight like they did last night, I hopefully predict an Edwards’s win. I think the effort and time that Edwards has spent working for support in the rural counties may be what gives him the edge.”

James Flanagan is a solid John  Edwards loyalist.

Levi Van Oort remains as he was when we met him at Harkin’s Steak Fry, a passionate Obama supporter.

“Barack has always giving me that feeling that he is a trustworthy candidate and really could work across both sides of the isle to get things done,” Van Oort said.

“I know his lack of experience has been called into question, but that really doesn't bother me.  I think Obama's relative youth in national politics will help him in his presidency," he said. "There's a saying, ‘Never tell a young person something can't be done because they may be just ignorant of the impossible to do just that thing.’” 

Clinton as a 'power monger'
He added, “Hillary, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of Obama.  She is a power monger that has been groomed her whole life for a presidential run and represents, to me, all that is wrong with Washington. I think she will do and say anything to win the White House and I just don't feel that I can trust her.”

In his view, “The Clintons and the Bushes don't represent Democrats or Republicans. To me, they are both in the same party, the ‘Big Washington’ party. They do nothing, then represent powerful interests that will help them maintain their power.” 

Another Obama supporter is Catherine Hicks of Windsor Heights, a Des Moines suburb, whom we interviewed last month. Hicks has been meeting every month with three friends to compare their research on the Democratic candidates.

“I met Hillary Clinton, and you know what? She was warm and friendly, not at all cold and calculating,” Hick said, underscoring the personal contact that Iowa voters get. “I met John Edwards and he is filled with passion. I met Bill Richardson and couldn't help but smile.  Christopher Dodd's sister spent over three hours with our small group telling us story after story about her brother and their family.” 

But Hicks chose Obama.

Why she likes Obama
“I've gone to hear Senator Obama speak nine times.  I've seen him speak to small groups; I've seen him speak to the enormous ‘Oprah Effect’ group and just about every size group in between. This is what I have found out. Senator Obama is a good listener, a powerful speaker, a presidential and dignified presence, but most importantly he seems to be comfortable being himself.”

She added, “He has a unique combination of great intelligence, inherent kindness and goodness, the wisdom to realize that hope is not a sign of weakness, and the strength to surround himself with individuals to offer him outstanding counsel.”

That’s what a strictly unscientific sample of Iowa Democrats are saying as the hour approaches for the caucuses.

Grassroots Democrats also tell us that at this late stage there are still lots of undecided Democrats. State Rep. Swati Dandekar, a Clinton supporter from Marion, Iowa, said Wednesday afternoon that five local Democrats called her seeking her advice in the last few days. 

The winner may come down to which candidate has the best spokesman in each precinct to pull the undecided over to his or her side.

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