DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa's Democratic caucus voters are weighing the candidates and have some bad news to would-be presidential contenders — not many of them can count on making it very far in the primary season.
Democratic Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (search), the unofficial gatekeeper of the crucially important first presidential caucuses in the nation — scheduled for Jan. 19, 2004 — said that with eight months to go, he has already narrowed down the field of nine to three serious contenders — Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search).
"The first tier is Gephardt, Dean and Kerry. They either have very aggressive organizations or they've spent a lot of time in the state," Vilsack told Fox News.
That could come as tough news for the likes of Sens. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman (search) of Connecticut and Bob Graham (search) of Florida, whom Vilsack relegates to second-tier competitors.
The Iowa governor has all but anointed Gephardt the man to beat if the former House minority leader can win over Iowa's influential labor unions.
"If Gephardt gets those endorsements as I think folks expect him to, then he's clearly in the driver's seat. If he fails to get those endorsements, it's going to be a very, very competitive race," Vilsack said.
But at the Waveland Diner in Des Moines, where eggs over easy these days comes with a hefty side order of presidential politics, not every Democrat agrees with Vilsack.
"I just can't see Gephardt yet. I don't know what to say about him," said patron Ken Scarpino.
The latest Iowa caucus polls show Gephardt with a substantial lead. He has nearly twice the support of Kerry, the only other candidate with double-digit support.
But caucus polls can be unreliable. In a state of 4 million people, fewer than 100,000 attend caucuses. Finding caucus voters to conduct scientific polls can be tough.
Iowa Democrats also lean more liberally on the political scale than much of the rest of the country, creating a challenge for Lieberman, who is running to the right of his rivals. Dean, who opposed the war and is running to the left, is hot here.
"There are a lot of candidates right now. I was listening to Mr. Lieberman this morning but he doesn't have very much new to say. I think Howard [Dean] is looking more carefully at what the liberal is really becoming," said voter Jane Bell.
Independents can also vote in Iowa caucuses, but so far, some say they have yet to be inspired by the lot they are choosing from.
"They're not giving me anything that I think is important to the country yet," said independent Bob Jones.
Still, the party faithful in the state is ready for a fight.
"I think President Bush, perhaps it's his upbringing and the somewhat spoiled life he has led, that I think sometimes he misses the major points on what's important to every person and every family that lives in America," said Erin McKinney.
Both Iowa and national polls show Bush with a soaring post-war approval rating. According to a poll taken earlier this month for the Des Moines Register, Bush receives a 67 percent approval rating, although when it comes to the economy, 50 percent disapprove of the job he's doing.
Still, 52 percent of Iowans are ready to re-elect him today. Frank Strickland, a lifelong Democrat and family physician, said not only is he unpersuaded by the Democrats' current campaign push for universal health care, politically he may swing to the other side.
"I actually would think I would vote for George Bush. I don't like Hillary [Clinton], [former President] Bill Clinton was an embarrassment, so I might even become a Republican," Strickland said.
Bush's job performance is relevant when it comes to the Democratic caucuses. Democrats and independents are looking for a candidate who can give them reason to vote against a Republican that many acknowledge is doing a good job. They say they have not yet found it.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.