updated 1/5/2004 6:29:52 PM ET 2004-01-05T23:29:52

Iowa’s Democratic governor has decided against endorsing a presidential candidate in the caucuses, but four-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin remains undecided, aides said Monday.

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With the contest in two weeks and still competitive, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will remain neutral, as he did in the 2000 Democratic race. Harkin, who briefly sought the nomination in 1992, is the more coveted prize for the nine Democratic hopefuls.

“He hasn’t yet made a decision,” said spokeswoman Allison Dobson. “He probably will make a decision soon. He really isn’t leaning one way or the other at this point.”

Harkin breezed to 4th term in Senate
Harkin is probably the state’s most popular Democratic politician, who breezed to a fourth term in the Senate in 2002 and held a series of town-hall forums with the candidates last year. His political organization in the state is formidable, and he hasn’t been shy about using it to aid political allies.

In the 2000 election, Harkin endorsed Gore and offered his political organization to that camp. He got a lot of credit for helping Gore turn back a challenge from then-Sen. Bill Bradley in Iowa’s caucuses.

A Harkin endorsement could make the difference in the competitive race. The campaign of front-runner Howard Dean has been pursuing a Harkin endorsement. Rival Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri has the backing of more unions than Dean, and labor is a key part of Harkin’s political base.

Several of Harkin’s Senate colleagues also are battling in Iowa, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Crucial for clout
If Harkin comes to the conclusion that Dean is building a lead and headed for the nomination, a pre-caucus endorsement would be crucial to maintaining his clout with the campaigns as the race proceeds.

Vilsack spokeswoman Amanda Crumley said the governor “feels it’s important to keep the door open in Iowa to all Democrats.”

Crumley said he told staffers Monday there would be no endorsement, in part to assure a fair contest and boost the state’s chances of retaining its first-in-the nation status. The state is competitive in the general election, and Vilsack wants to stay out of the fray to make it easier to heal any wounds in the fall.

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