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Kerry keeps slim lead on decision day

Four Democrats are locked in a tight race to the finish in Iowa one day before Monday's presidential caucuses, with John Kerry clinging to a narrow lead, according to MSNBC’s poll.
/ Source: Reuters

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts continued to hold a slight lead over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean among likely participants in the Iowa caucused, with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina a close third. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri had slipped to fourth, according to the new Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll released Monday.

Kerry led Dean 25 percent to 22 percent in the three-day tracking poll, with Edwards at 21 percent and Gephardt at 18 percent in the tightest Iowa caucus campaign in history.

Monday night's caucuses are the first test in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to President Bush, and Dean and Gephardt had battled for the top spot in polls in the state for months. But Kerry and Edwards roared in to join them over the past two weeks as Iowa Democrats took a fresh look at the candidates and whether they could beat Bush in November.

“The story here is that Kerry had a huge day on Sunday alone. He carries his lead into the caucuses” pollster John Zogby said. “He will probably be on top in Monday’s entrance poll. Edwards finished strong and Dean bounced back. Only Gephardt seems to have faded on this last day.”

A tracking poll combines the results of three consecutive nights of polling, then drops the last night's results each time a new night is added. It allows pollsters to record shifts in voter sentiment as they happen.

9 percent still undecided
The latest poll found that 9 percent of likely caucus-goers were still undecided, leaving room for more momentum swings in the last hours of the race. The final tracking poll of 501 likely caucus-goers was taken Friday through Sunday. It has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Zogby said Kerry dominated in western Iowa and among independents and voters with college degrees, while Dean held a strong lead with younger voters and Gephardt led with older voters.

“The race is very close among union voters and liberals,” he said, while all four candidates had about equal numbers of backers who described their support as “very strong.”

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio were at 2 percent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was at 1 percent and the Rev. Al Sharpton was at less than 1 percent. Clark and Lieberman did not compete in Iowa.

Polling in Iowa is complicated by the unique nature of the caucus system, which requires participants to leave their homes and gather with neighbors before publicly declaring their support for a candidate.

Participation requires more of a commitment than private ballot-box voting, making it harder to gauge who will actually attend. Only about 100,000 people are expected to turn out for caucuses across Iowa.