Poll: Iowa Fluid For Democrats With Obama Gaining

Is the conventional talking head wisdom and ongoing press narrative about to be turned upside down in Iowa?

The conventional wisdom and press assumptions now are that (a) New York Senator Hillary Clinton is the front-runner, (b) Illinois Senator Barack Obama is someone with great potential who somehow isn’t really cutting it and probably won’t wind up with the nomination given her so-far skillful campaign and the experience and strength of the “Clinton machine.”

But a new poll suggests that these assumptions — written, talked about and insinuated by professional pundits — could be subject to a big fat morning-after “never mind” if results in Iowa echo what polling is finding:

The top three Democratic presidential contenders remain locked in a close battle in Iowa, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) seeing her advantages diminish on key issues, including the questions of experience and which candidate is best prepared to handle the war in Iraq, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) draws support from 30 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, compared with 26 percent for Clinton and 22 percent for former senator John Edwards (N.C.). New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson received 11 percent. The results are only marginally different from a Post-ABC poll in late July, but in a state likely to set the tone for the rest of the nominating process, there are significant signs of progress for Obama — and harbingers of concern for Clinton.

In other words, is this the beginning of a pattern, a downward spiral, for Ms. Clinton? Or the inevitable battle scars of a front-runner who gets pounced on from rivals within her own party and operatives from the other party?

The factors that have made Clinton the clear national front-runner — including her overwhelming leads on the issues of the Iraq war and health care, a widespread sense that she is the Democrats’ most electable candidate, and her strong support among women — do not appear to be translating on the ground in Iowa, where campaigning is already fierce and television ads have been running for months.

At the heart of the Democratic race has been the dichotomy between strength and experience (qualities emphasized by Clinton, Richardson, and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut in their appeals) and the ability to introduce a new approach to governing (as Obama and Edwards have promised to do).

Iowa Democrats are tilting toward change, and Obama appears to be benefiting from it.

Hillary Clinton has been portraying herself as an agent of change — a potential big change from the era of President George Bush, the Bush-dominated GOP and the Bush White House. But in the background has been the fact that, like the present Bush was perceived by some as a kind of “restoration” of the Bushism of George Bush 41, Hillary’s Clinton candidacy has been a kind of pitch to restore Clintonism.

The Bushies considered the Clinton era an interruption in GOP rule and in the dominance of the Bush family on the national political scene. Rightfully or wrongfully, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy risks giving the same impression — particularly when her still-quite-popular husband Bill Clinton is on the hustings making the case for her.

So Obama has become symbolic to many as a “real” agent of change — in generational political dominance, away from the party’s prevailing political family, and in tone from politics in the way it has been practiced stridently in the late 20th to early 21st century. Rightfully, or wrongfully.

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed reported that a “new direction and new ideas” are their top priority, compared with 33 percent who favored “strength and experience.” That is a shift from July, when 49 percent sought change and 39 percent experience.

Nationally, Clinton is viewed as a candidate of change, with support from 41 percent of Democrats seeking a new direction in a recent Post-ABC poll. But in Iowa, Obama dominates the “change” vote, winning 43 percent of that group, compared with 25 percent for Edwards and 17 percent for Clinton.

Still, Clinton retains a comfortable lead among Iowa voters who consider strength and experience more important, with 38 percent compared with 19 percent for Edwards, 18 percent for Richardson and 12 percent for Obama, according to the new survey.

She appears more vulnerable on questions of character. Thirty-one percent found Obama to be the most honest and trustworthy, about double the percentage who said the same of Clinton. While about three-quarters credited both Obama and Edwards with speaking their minds on issues, only 50 percent said Clinton is willing enough to say what she really thinks. Forty-five percent said she is not sufficiently candid.

But the bottom line is:

All analysis pieces you read in the media, all blog pieces (including this one) and (to be SURE) all talk radio riffs right now are based on existing perceptions.

What’s going on is a battle of changing and solidifying perceptions...of competency, strength, and change. The poll suggests Iowa voters are still sorting out how to rank candidates on these issues ..and how to prioritize these factors when they vote.

Good news for the challengers. Bad news for the front runners.

If this is a general mood, then Rudy Giuliani and John McCain take note.

And Ron Paul must be smiling..