STEVE INSKEEP, host:
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The Democratic presidential candidates met for a good-natured exchange of views in the final Iowa debate before the caucuses, which are now less than three weeks away. There are a couple of different ways you can cover a debate like this. You can listen to the candidates, which we're doing elsewhere in the program, or you can listen to the voters who listened to the candidates.
NPR's Linda Wertheimer watched the debate at the home of the president of Drake University and with women from a book club that's been going for 28 years.
Unidentified Woman #1: Romance novel?
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh yeah.
Unidentified Woman #1: What is that?
LINDA WERTHEIMER: They are teachers, lawyers, executives, several retired now, Democrats who are politically active and especially interested in this election. They listened intently when candidates offered plans to end the war and use the money to pay for health care and education.
Janelle Sarcone(ph) is retired from the financial industry. She thought Senator Christopher Dodd's call for civility was also important.
Ms. JANELLE SARCONE: No one is going to change health care the first year. No one - they might stop the war, which for me is a very big issue, but you need to bring back the discussion, the civility. You need to get people talking to one another.
WERTHEIMER: And Dorothy Kelley, who just retired from being deputy director of the public library, liked Hillary Clinton's conditional promise.
Ms. DOROTHY KELLEY: Two of them said they'd end the war. Hillary Clinton said she would begin to end the war, which I thought was a key phrase.
WERTHEIMER: The war is still the biggest issue in Iowa and several of these women thought the president's conduct of the war might even cause some Republicans to consider Democrats.
Ms. JOANNE YOUNG(ph): I've had a few people in the past few weeks who have been lifelong Republicans and they kind of lower their voice and look around the room, and then they say to me I'm not going to vote Republican this year. You know...
WERTHEIMER: That was Joanne Young. She was a mediator who works for Pope County.
Virginia Nimmers(ph), a freelance writer, said there are still moderate Republicans in Iowa and they are particularly frustrated.
Ms. VIRGINIA NIMMERS: I think we have to be realistic. They're not going to vote for every Democrat. But I think there are a few Democrats out there who are running who would - who they feel they could live with, basically.
WERTHEIMER: Our group of Democrats included women who support Senator Chris Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson. But most of them are either supporting the frontrunners or trying to choose among them. Several were excited about the opportunity to vote for a woman who might actually win. I asked about the concerns raised about Clinton, that she is cold or secretive.
Deborah Jacobs(ph) is a retired teacher.
Ms. DEBORAH JACOBS (Retired Teacher): I think this is the luck we have here in Iowa, of seeing her as a real person and a warmer, more approachable person. I think that that - all those stereotypes of her, I think - at least with people that I talk to - are diminishing, you know, that they're feeling that she is a better candidate now than previously.
WERTHEIMER: Several Obama supporters cited his newness, his message of hope. But others were still concerned about his experience. Here is Joanne Young again.
Ms. YOUNG: I think he is a very good man. I think he will get the experience. I don't think he has it yet. And I think to bring in Oprah Winfrey, you know, I just - I can't fathom that. It's sound and fury signifying nothing. I don't understand. I received a phone call last night. It was a recorded endorsement for Obama. It was from the lady who sculpted the butter cow at the Iowa state fair for so many years. It was like...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. YOUNG: ...how could this impact me? Why - why would you call me? I love the state fair as much as anybody, but I think he's grasping.
WERTHEIMER: All the candidates bring famous people to Iowa, one woman said; so what? These women do have lingering concerns. There is the possibility of another bitter campaign about abortion. One suggested that the Republican field is so weak that the party might bring in still another new candidate.
But Virginia Nimmers suggested that this time the Democrats have a special advantage.
Ms. NIMMERS: And I think what the Democrats have going for us this year is the issues are sort of leading the way. And so in that way we can't lose if we keep being honest in talking about the issues that people care about.
WERTHEIMER: These women are pretty sure their party can win with whoever its nominee is. And that may explain why they're having so much fun on an icy Iowa day watching 90 minutes of recitations on budget plans and energy policies.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Des Moines.
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