updated 12/15/2003 2:12:18 PM ET 2003-12-15T19:12:18

For months Lorraine Lordi has worn a pin with a picture of the Democratic presidential hopefuls and three little words: “Anybody But Bush.” Yet choosing, among the nine candidates, just one to be the nominee has turned out to be tough.

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“I’m probably more undecided than I ever was,” said Lordi, a college professor of English who is from Londonderry, N.H. “I just don’t know if anyone is strong enough to carry the country against Bush. He’s just so clever.”

Countless other voters are unsure of their preference ahead of the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27. The latest poll from the Pew Research Center shows 17 percent of primary voters in each state do not yet know which politician they will support.

Given the large field, it is not unusual for voters to be undecided in mid-December. The Democratic Party, out of power in Congress, lacks a clear national leader to rally the effort to unseat President Bush.

“There’s no shadow chancellor or shadow prime minister. It’s hard to find out who the leader of the party is,” Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said. “These guys have been doing yeoman’s work in putting in time and effort here, but nobody’s run away with it.”

Minds could still change
Moreover, those who say they back one candidate today could change their mind over the next several weeks. Candidates trailing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who holds a double-digit lead in New Hampshire surveys and is in a tight race with Rep. Dick Gephardt in Iowa, take heart in that possibility and the notion that nearly one in five votes is up for grabs.

“I think that number could be a little higher,” said Iowa activist Joe Shannahan, who supports Dean. “Most people are probably still making up their minds.”

Preferences in Iowa changed late in the 1988 Democratic primary. Gephardt rallied from dead last in polls in December 1987 to finish first at the January caucuses.

This year, the Missouri congressman is running closely against Dean but ahead of the rest of the pack. Undecided voters and those switching from candidates far in the back of the field could determine the outcome.

Phil Roeder, a Sen. John Kerry supporter who runs the political operation of a large Iowa law firm, believes the numbers are soft even now. “It’s a completely wide-open race here for any of the candidates,” Roeder said. “With the exception of leading Democrats who have formally endorsed a candidate, the typical caucus-goer is apt to change their mind.”

20% in New Hampshire
In New Hampshire, the number of undecided voters is smaller than might be expected, according to Jennifer Donahue, a senior adviser for the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester. A Zogby poll places undecided voters in her state at close to 20 percent.

“I think the play in New Hampshire goes right up until primary day,” Donahue said. “I don’t know if Dean has peaked or if he can maintain the base he’s got, but those who haven’t signed on with Dean appear to be shopping around.”

With such a wide lead in New Hampshire, the Dean campaign may not be overly worried about undecided voters.

“You’re getting into a situation where you can give any of the eight candidates the undecideds and it doesn’t make a difference,” said pollster Dick Bennett of the American Research Group in Manchester. His poll, released Thursday, showed the undecided count at just 15 percent in the state.

In Newton, Iowa, uncertainty has been in the air even among activists who get together regularly at Uncle Nancy’s Coffee Shop to talk politics.

“You see a lot of the same people going to see all of the candidates,” said legislative staffer Ron Parker, himself undecided. “You talk to them afterward, and they’ll say they’re leaning toward this person or that person, but they haven’t decided 100 percent. They want to keep an open mind and see what happens in the next 30 days.”

Turnout is the key to success
Getting people to show up is the way to succeed in the Iowa caucuses, which tend to draw fewer participants than primaries.

“A lot of undecided people could vote not with their feet but with their rear ends by keeping them in a chair that night,” said Goldford, the political scientist.

That will not happen among the activists, Parker predicted, but they probably will remain open to reconsidering where they will put their support.

“I don’t think these people would be coming out to Uncle Nancy’s Coffee Shop at 7 o’clock at night if they didn’t have an interest in going to a caucus,” he said. “A lot of them don’t see a huge difference between the candidates, and they’re looking for a sign or a magic bullet that says this person is going to have the best chance of knocking off George W. Bush next fall.”

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