THE TRUTH ABOUT IOWA: This Is What Voters REALLY Think Of The Candidates

waterloo iowa rallyMary Ellen Prier and Barb Dowd, two Black Hawk County caucus-goers

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With just 48 hours to go until the Iowa caucuses, a startling number of the state’s Republican voters still haven’t decided who they are going to cast their ballot for on Tuesday night.But this collective indecision isn’t the result of apathy or a sudden distaste for politics. The sheer number of potential caucus-goers who turned out at meet-and-greets and rallies across the state this weekend suggest that Iowa Republicans genuinely want to vote for a suitable candidate. Many of them just haven’t decided who he or she is yet — and even those who say they have settled on a candidate are apt to change their minds.

In the eastern city of Waterloo, for example, about 150 people crammed into a local bar yesterday to hear Newt Gingrich give his pitch, despite the fact that the former House Speaker has faded to a distant fourth place in Iowa polls.

As we waited for Gingrich to arrive, some of those voters told me what they are holding out for:

They want a positive message. Voters I spoke with frequently remarked about how they were looking for a candidate who was positive and uplifting. There seemed to be a widespread distaste for the rancor and negativity that has shaped the Iowa race. To be fair, Gingrich has campaigned on a promise to not go negative, so his rallies likely attract people who respond to that message. And there is evidence that positive campaigning works in Iowa — Herman Cain, Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum have all arguably been buoyed by their unwillingness — or financial inability — to run big negative campaigns. Conversely, voters seem turned off by the negative ads run by the Romney and Perry machines, even if the attacks are also working.

They are seriously turned off by Congress. The ‘throw ’em all out’ fervor of 2010 appears to have given way to a more accommodating tone, as Republican voters get increasingly disenchanted by partisan gridlock in Washington. Across the room Sunday, voters expressed the desire for a leader who could get things done, which explains the appeal of 1990s throwbacks like Gingrich and Santorum. These voters like bold ideas, but not at the expense of compromise.

They are very informed — and want to vote for someone who is too. Anyone who thinks Iowa politics is all about winning smiles and state fair flesh-pressing has been sorely misled. The caucus process does not lend itself to apathy — the entire thing is done out in the open, in front of all of your neighbours, so there is a powerful incentive to have at least some idea of what you are talking about. For the most part, the voters who came out Sunday had a clear idea of the issues that concern them — mostly the economy/jobs, but also foreign affairs — and their questions about Gingrich’s farm and energy policy positions were surprisingly specific. They expected his answers to be equally well-informed.

They want the candidate who can take the biggest bite out of Barack Obama. Conventional wisdom holds that Iowa’s socially conservative caucus-goers have been desperately looking for someone who is not a Northeastern Mormon with a hazy record on key issues like abortion and gay marriage. In reality, most of the voters I spoke to said they think Romney seems like a nice enough guy, but that they don’t think he can really stick it to Obama next fall.

They really WANT to vote. Iowa voters may be undecided about who they are going to vote for, but there is no question that they are going to vote. This means that anything could happen tomorrow night.

Barnes is still undecided -- he liked Ron Paul in the beginning, for his domestic policies, but says Paul's foreign policy platform is just too radical.

'When he said he wouldn't have put the kill order on Osama Bin Laden, that killed it for me,' he said.

Now, Barnes says he is leaning towards Gingrich, because of his experience and because he is running a positive campaign.

'He has a positive attitude,' he said. 'He has shown that he knows how to reach across the aisle and work with the liberals.'

Barnes added that that quality has become more important as Congressional gridlock has worsened over the last year.

'We just need positive leadership,' he said. 'We need a leader who will get people enthusiastic about lowering taxes and raising employment.'

Mary Ellen Prier and Barb Dowd, regular Republican caucus-goers from Waterloo, are still deciding who to vote for — but that's part of the fun.

The choice has come down to Romney and Gingrich, Dowd said, and Prier added that she is partial to Gingrich.

But regardless of who they support, part of the fun of the first-in-nation caucuses is being part of the process. The two friends have made an effort to see and learn about the candidates -- they saw Romney last week.

Barnes's 18-year old daughter Olivia said she still hasn't decided who she's voting for on Tuesday.

But she said she's excited to experience the caucuses for the first time.

Barnes's cousin, Alex Webb, was a big media favourite at the rally, even though he can't vote in the caucuses.

With his hip haircut and glasses, Webb definitely stood out in the crowd at LJ's neighbourhood Bar & Grill, which probably explains why a steady stream of reporters and photographers that kept stopping by his table. One guy noted that he was 'the only hipster in Waterloo,' and a Gingrich staffer said he looked 'exactly like my friend from L.A.'

But Webb isn't from Waterloo or Los Angeles. He and his sister Elizabeth are visiting the Barnes' this week so they can experience the caucuses first-hand.

The Barnes' and the Webbs pose for The New York Times.

Joyce Anderson traveled all the way from Indianapolis just to see Newt.

Although she originally thought he was an 'arrogant gas-bag,' Anderson said she has completely changed her opinion about Gingrich over the past year.

'I just love him,' she gushed. 'I just think he's so different than he used to be -- he's like the new and improved Newt.'

'He seems kind to me,' she added. 'In those debates, it just seemed like he was putting his arms around everybody there, kind of like the big, protecting father.'

Although she is a registered Republican, Anderson said that she is in favour of gay marriage and against the death penalty. But despite her divergent positions, she still loves Gingrich.

'I just think if anyone can save us, he's the most likely person.'

And this lady traveled all the way from North Carolina to sell homemade buttons during the caucuses.

Although she declined to give me her name, she said that she had traveled up with six others to sell the buttons, which had slogans like 'Republican Women Are The Life Of The Party' and 'Hot Chicks Vote Republican.'

'It's just pure, old-fashioned capitalism,' she said, when I asked if she worked for a campaign. She added that some of the proceeds are donated to the Republican National Committee.

It looks like we're in for an Iowa surprise.

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