Democrats Assess Candidate Crop

Democratic activist Mary Beth Walz sees presidential candidates. She sees them in her Bow, N.H., backyard at her annual pig roasts for local politicians. She sees them at campaign stops.

And yet not one of the nine has won her over. She wants a candidate who can beat President Bush, and until she finds one, she's remaining undecided.

"Every time I'd walk out of a particular candidate's event, I'd say, 'This is the one,'" the part-time lawyer and mother of five recalled. "But then I always force myself to step back and put it in perspective."

Recent state polls show Walz is part of an increasing number of likely New Hampshire primary voters who months ago were inclined to support a specific Democrat, but now, with Bush's approval ratings dropping and the president appearing more vulnerable, are rethinking their choice.

American Research Group (search) pegged undecided voters at 30 percent late last month, up from 23 percent in June. Franklin Pierce College's latest count shows undecideds at 37 percent, up from 31 percent in May. Undecided voters made up 30 percent of those polled by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center last month, down from the spring but up from the 19 percent last winter.

"A lot of Democratic voters are still shopping around," said Rich Killion, poll director for Franklin Pierce.

The high number of undecideds also is a reflection of the crowded Democratic field that lacks no clear favorite. While the constant Democratic criticism of Bush has pushed his numbers down, it's been a cacophony that has failed to distinguish any rival.

"This field is really frozen," Killion said. "There are two front-runners who are really close to each other, then there's a listless pack."

State polls show fellow New Englanders John Kerry and Howard Dean locked in a tight race, with Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut vying for third. The rest trails in low single digits.

Those same polls show former Vice President Al Gore (search) or New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) holding their own or even beating the current crop of Democrats, further proof of voters' tepid response to the field and the growing view that Bush could be ousted.

"Their major goal is to beat George W. Bush, and now they believe that a Democrat will be able to do that," said Dick Bennett of the American Research Group. "A month ago, I don't think they did."

Beth Arsenault, chairwoman of the Belknap County Democrats, doesn't plan to publicly endorse a candidate before the primary, tentatively set for Jan. 27.

Based on conversations with other Democrats, she agrees some voters who once thought Bush was unbeatable are reconsidering their options, but most have been undecided all along, she argues.

Democrats are choosing more carefully this time, Arsenault said.

"I think it adds a layer to the decision-making process," she said. "They're afraid of making the wrong choice. They're afraid of what it would mean to the country were they not to put up as strong a candidate as possible against George Bush."