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Just off the quaint town square, a pizza shop owner and an employee took a break to banter about politics one recent late-summer day. They did not always agree, but like many others, found common ground on their preference for president — no one yet.
“I am turned off,” Chad Ver Steeg, a 42-year-old Republican who runs the Pizza Ranch restaurant. He lamented the mudslinging by both parties and said, “I don’t look forward to this election.”
Added fellow conservative Joel Ruisch, 36: “I haven’t followed it enough to even come close to picking who to support.”
For all the time and money that the candidates have invested, a large number of voters in each party remains uncommitted or willing to change their minds four months before voting begins.
More Republicans fall into that category than Democrats.
The difference reflects the wide-open GOP race. There are several strong contenders — Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and John McCain — but none has emerged as the consensus of a dispirited Republican establishment.
Conversely, the Democratic field is more settled. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a sizable lead over her most formidable challengers, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Democratic voters have indicated they are relatively comfortable with their choices. Thus, more have picked someone to back.
“It’s all still very fluid. Relatively few people have focused a lot on this. People aren’t fully committed yet,” said Andrew Kohut, a nonpartisan pollster and director of the Pew Research Center. “Generally most people are going to make up their mind in the month of the primary, and some people make up their mind in the last final days.”
Nationally, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll from last week showed a sizable chunk of Republicans, 22 percent, do not support the top candidates or fall into the undecided category. Among Democrats, 12 percent have not locked in on a person to back.
Clinton is the Democratic leader in the poll, but none of the Republicans has emerged as a clear front-runner, especially among key voting groups like evangelicals, conservatives and men.
State-specific surveys for the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg showed last that there week double-digit percentages of undecided Republicans and Democrats alike in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Those states are among the first to hold contests in the march to the nomination.
In addition, about half or more of the Republican and Democratic voters in each state signaled that they still might vote for someone else.
All that is good news for underdogs looking for opportunities to break out of the pack.
Democrat John Kerry learned the power of winning over undecided voters in 2004. All but dead just a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Kerry courted late-deciders and came from behind to best early favorites Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, who had been leading in the polls. The victory gave Kerry the momentum to become the Democratic nominee.
Four years later, the 2008 race began extraordinarily early but voter attention remained low. Last December, as the first candidates entered the race and others prepared to follow suit, just 27 percent of people told Pew they had given a lot of thought to the candidates. By July, after more than six months of wall-to-wall campaigning, that figure had only inched up to 34 percent.
“The public is grazing on what they’re hearing from these campaigns, not really taking it in and processing it,” Kohut said.
Gallup surveys from the most recent presidential elections show it’s typical for more than one in 10 people to be undecided each September before a primary season.
Direct comparisons are difficult, however, given that the 2008 race is the first since 1928 in which neither a sitting president nor a vice president is running for the highest office. This time, there are no incumbents or obvious heirs apparent pursuing the nominations, making for the most volatile races in decades.
_In 2004, Bush was the Republican incumbent. Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, faced several foes, including Dean, Gephardt, Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Four months before voting began that year, 16 percent of Democrats were undecided.
_In 2000, contested races occurred for both the Democratic and Republican nominations. Vice President Al Gore battled Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey for the Democrats’ nod. Just after Labor Day, 18 percent of Democrats identified themselves as uncommitted to either man. On the Republican side, the crowded field included establishment favorite Texas Gov. George W. Bush and insurgent McCain. Among the GOP, 17 percent of voters said they weren’t yet backing a candidate.
_In 1996, Bill Clinton was the Democratic incumbent. Among Republicans, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas ultimately emerged as the nominee after beating back several GOP rivals in a heated race. The September before, roughly 13 percent of Republicans said they were undecided.
Recent interviews in Iowa showed the scope of 2008 indecision.
Some voters said they haven’t tuned in yet while others insisted they are put off by the entire process starting so early. A few who have shopped around complained that they don’t like their options, and, thus, will not support anyone until the end.
“I just haven’t been paying much attention,” said Delbert Zwart, 60, of Hawarden, who showed up at the Pizza Ranch on a recent rainy weekday morning to meet Republican Mike Huckabee.
Across the restaurant, John Grandia, 66, of Pella, gave his status: “I’m searching. I haven’t found someone who fits the whole mold — from his lifestyle to what he believes in — of strong conservative positions.”
Discontent appeared among Democrats as well but to a lesser extent.
“I’m not in love with any of the Democrats,” said Philip Stanfield, 58, of Cherokee, a former Republican who has voted Democrat since 1992 and plans to participate in the Democratic caucuses. “I would have liked to have seen Al Gore get in again, but I don’t think he’s going to do it.”
Just after Labor Day, Jody Halsted, 36, of Akeny, toted her two daughters — 1-year-old Caelan and 2 1/2-year-old Brenna — to see Thompson’s first event as a full-fledged candidate. She had seen all the other Republican candidates in person but remained uncommitted, saying she was looking for a conservative who could win in November.
After listening to Thompson, she said, “he’s probably my top candidate” and then added: “right now” as she, like so many others, reserved the right to change her mind.