Barack Obama was faced with a difficult choice. He had time for only one more question inside the school gym in Williamsburg, Iowa, before driving through a snowstorm to his next event. But two voters stood up side by side at the same time at the back of the crowd. "Which one of you is still undecided," he asked, only half in jest. "I want the undecided one. But if I didn't get a chance to answer your question, I'll answer it while we're shaking hands."
The end of a campaign is normally a time to rally loyal supporters to ensure they show up to vote. But in the final days before the Iowa caucuses, the candidates are engaged in another pursuit as they make their closing arguments: to push undecided voters into a decision.
Polls point to an unusually large number of undecided voters in Iowa. In the most recent CNN poll, in mid-December, just 38 percent of Iowa's likely voters had definitely decided on a candidate. The number who said they were still trying to decide was 40 percent. (A Pew Research poll in Iowa four years ago at the same stage found just 17 percent answering "don't know." ) These undecided voters will either break in the final days of the Iowa campaign (as they did for John Kerry in 2004), or they'll simply stay at home.
"It's true that there a lot of people that are undecided," Obama told reporters last week. "For a lot of them it's just a matter of seeing me for the first time. Typically, when I see a show of hands, we're getting a third of the people who are undecided. And we're getting a sizable chunk of them."
That chunk of undecideds is the target for the closing arguments by all three leading Democrats. But after a year on the campaign trail, the candidates are so tied up in their recent clashes with rival campaigns that their pitches can sometimes sound self-contradictory.
For instance, Obama is channeling his inner Bill Clinton, even as he argues that it's time to turn the page on the Clinton years. Answering questions about his political experience, Obama cites Bill Clinton's response to President George H.W. Bush in 1992. "The truth is, you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience," Obama says in his latest stump speech. "Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change. I believe deeply in those words. But they are not mine. They were Bill Clinton's in 1992, when Washington insiders questioned his readiness to lead."
The Ghost of Clinton Past doesn't stop there. Back in 1992 Bill Clinton used to weave this line into his stump speech, citing his wife's input on health and education as a reason to vote for him: "My wife, Hillary, gave me a book that says, 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result'."
Now Obama happily uses an echo of that line while responding to Clinton's suggestion that the Illinois senator represents "a roll of the dice."
"Lately, since we've been doing well, some of my opponents have been saying, 'He may sound good, but we're not sure we can go with someone who hasn't been in Washington so long. He's a risk, a roll of the dice'," Obama said in Williamsburg.
"But the real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result. That's the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting somehow that things are going to turn out differently. We can't take that risk. Not this time. Not now. Because the stakes are just too high. In this election, it's time for us to turn the page."
As it happens, Hillary Clinton agrees that the stakes are high—too high for a novice candidate to win the nomination. In fact, the most powerful of several new Clinton ads is called "Stakes." After pictures of a soldier's helmet and a foreclosure sign, the voiceover says, "America at a crossroads demands a leader with a steady hand who will weather the storms, solve our problems, rebuild our middle class and renew our greatness." Yet the closing line undercuts the notion that this is a tried and tested leader: "Hillary Clinton. A New Beginning."
How can you be new and storm-weathered at the same time? Iowans will find out if they watch their 6 p.m. newscast on Jan. 2, when Clinton will air a two-minute ad—four times the normal length of a commercial—to make her closing argument across the state's media markets on the evening before the caucuses.
In contrast, John Edwards is making a closing argument that targets corporate America more than his rivals. For Edwards corporations are not just hurting America, they're hurting America's children. His signature commercial is called "Choice," and it features Edwards saying, "The status quo and good intentions aren't enough. We're not going to look our kids in the eye and say, 'Corporate greed stole your future.' We're going to say, 'America rose up, saved the middle class, gave you a better life, and it started right here in Iowa'."
All those undecided Iowans will get to choose whether they want a fighter, a change agent, or an experienced leader. And then they'll have to figure out which one is which.