CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are fighting for the favor of many of the same undecided voters across Iowa, where even some of the most attentive Republicans say they can't make up their minds less than four weeks before voting begins.
That was so among Iowans who gathered before sunrise to hear Rubio at a town-hall-style meeting in Cedar Rapids. The Florida senator impressed the crowd but few left having decided if he would get their vote.
"I haven't settled on one candidate 100 percent," said Mike Grover, a 65-year-old Cedar Rapids man who is among the thousands of "persuadable voters" still up for grabs.
In small towns from Cherokee to Sioux Center, an overwhelming number of would-be voters said both Cruz and Rubio are in contention for their support. Their policies, personalities and presumed ability to defeat the Democratic nominee in the fall are all under close examination. Donald Trump comes up often as well, as do retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
At 44 and 45, respectively, Rubio and Cruz are the youngest candidates in the 2016 field and the only Hispanics.
"I've seen Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz," Connie Peterson, a retired 74-year-old Republican, said Wednesday at a Rubio event in Marshalltown. "In ways they seem similar, and I can't make up my mind there." She added: "It's going to be a hard decision."
A day earlier, at a Cruz rally along Iowa's western border, Mondamin real estate agent Lary Clark said he was also torn between the Texas senator, a sharp-tongued combatant in Washington, and the smoother Rubio — both conservatives with tea party roots but divergent paths.
"I want somebody who's going to be able to win the general election," Clark said. By his calculation, Cruz or Rubio, with their Cuban-American heritage, may be best positioned to capture Latino votes in November.
Cruz is working to build on his strong Iowa polling this week with a 28-stop, six day bus tour focused largely on small towns and farm communities. Rubio is making four stops over two days, having spent nine days in the state over the past month, his campaign said.
Rubio, who is lagging behind Cruz in the polls, has been more forceful in criticizing Cruz while they've crisscrossed Iowa. Rubio is bluntly challenging Cruz's commitment to national security, while Cruz casts Rubio as an establishment favorite who supports "amnesty" for immigrants in the country illegally.
Undecided voters say they need more time to sort through the big pack of contenders.
"There's been so many," said Iowa corn farmer Jim Nelson of Cherokee. "We're trying to go through them all. Give them all a chance."
People in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire are notoriously late deciders and the fact they have a dozen contenders to choose from is making their decision all the more difficult.
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll conducted last month found that only 33 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers had made up their minds, with two-thirds saying they could still be persuaded by any candidate. That's in line with voters nationwide, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, which found in late December that nearly 6 in 10 Republicans could change their mind before casting their primary vote.
Cruz is banking on a win Feb. 1 caucus to generate momentum to sustain him well beyond the following contest in New Hampshire, where he's not expected to do as well. His team is more optimistic about his chances in South Carolina and the bulk of Super Tuesday states voting on March 1, several of which are in the South where his core support among evangelical conservatives is strong.
Rubio's path to the nomination is less clear. He's barely in the top-tier of many early state polls, often trailing both Cruz and Trump. The Florida senator's team is betting on a series of strong showings in the early states — if not wins — that would allow him to stay alive and inherit support from other candidates as they drop out.
Karl Palmberg, a 39-year-old farmer from Larchwood, Iowa, came with his wife and two young children to see Cruz on Wednesday morning at a diner in Rock Rapids. But Palmberg said Cruz is his second choice behind Rubio, citing issues like global warming, immigration and the flat tax that are making him lean toward Rubio because he's more to the center on them.
Becky Waters and her husband came from nearby Ogden to hear Cruz speak at a Christian bookstore in Boone on Monday. While her husband was on board for Cruz, Becky Waters said she came into the event torn between him and Rubio. But after hearing Cruz, her mind was made up.
"That was a powerful speech," she said. "He's the guy."
But Nelson, the corn grower, wasn't so sure after a Cruz event in Cherokee.
"I'll sleep on it," he said.
Bauer reported from Rock Rapids, Iowa.
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