Iowa's older voters hold key to first 2008 contest

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DAVENPORT, Iowa, Sep 24 (Reuters) Iowa's elderly, the biggest voting bloc in the kick-off US presidential contest, could make or break 2008 White House contenders and give Hillary Clinton a vital boost in one of her toughest states.

Clinton's popularity among older voters, particularly women, gives her an edge in a tight three-way Iowa Democratic race with Barack Obama and John Edwards, but many Iowa seniors say they are still hunting for a candidate and open to persuasion.

''I'm not ready to commit to anybody, it's way too early. A lot of things can happen,'' said Carol Micheel, a retired 70-year-old Democrat from Davenport who wants to compare the candidates' views on one of the biggest issues for elderly voters -- health care.

''There is no utopia on health care, there is no easy solution.

I want to hear exactly what they have to say,'' she said.

While older voters are traditionally the most active, they dominate in the early voting state of Iowa. About 64 percent of those who participated in the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucus were at least 50 years old, according to the state party.

That offers an opportunity for Clinton, who has big leads on top Democratic rivals in national polling in the November, 2008 race but has struggled against Obama and Edwards in Iowa.

The New York senator leads among elderly voters nationally and in Iowa, polls show.

A University of Iowa poll in August found Obama, a senator from Illinois, ahead among voters under age 60, but voters over 60 preferred Clinton by a wide margin and Obama fell to fourth place, behind former Sen. Edwards and New Mexico Governor. Bill Richardson.

''Hillary is very strong with seniors and Obama is clearly not doing as well with older Iowans as he is with younger voters,'' said David Redlawsk, director of the University of Iowa's Hawkeye poll.

''She's got her finger on our pulse,'' said Bev Fedje, 59, a real estate agent from Bettendorf, Iowa, who supports Clinton.

''She has a great presence, she has the experience and she's diplomatic.'' Yvonne Plambeck, a 70-year-old retired government worker from Davenport, said she did not buy the argument from Clinton's Democratic rivals that she was too polarising to muster political support for a health care overhaul.

''I think she is actually going to be the one who can get health care done. In the long run, she'll make the right decisions because she has so much experience,'' she said.

Sally Nelson, 62, an antique dealer from Clinton, Iowa, said the message of hope and generational change from Obama, an Illinois senator, leaves her cold.

''Too many platitudes and not enough specifics,'' she said.

''He wants us to hope. What are we hoping for?'' Nelson, who cannot get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, had gastrointestinal surgery this summer that cost 150,000 dollars. She said she is paying 2,000 dollar a month to work off the bill.

She is backing Richardson because of his experience as a governor, UN ambassador, Cabinet secretary and congressman.

''We need some experience,'' she said. ''I like his policies on Iraq and especially his health care policy.'' Clinton and Edwards have done a better job than Obama of addressing issues seniors are interested in, said Ramakrishna Vaitheswaran, 78, a retired Coe College economics professor from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is undecided.

''Obama's emphasis has been more in terms of healing divisions in the country and his role as a unifier,'' he said.

''Hillary and Edwards are doing a better job of laying out the issues.'' All of the top 2008 contenders have courted the elderly, with Democrats in particular concentrating on universal health care proposals. The Republican race has focused far less on health care.

Clinton rolled out her health care plan at an Iowa event last week, and Obama hosted events in Iowa on his prescription drug plan and proposed reforms to Medicare.

Niles Reed, 64, a Cedar Rapids retiree from the pharmaceutical industry, said he is backing Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was the first top Democrat to put out a plan for mandated universal health care coverage.

''I'm committed but I'm swayable,'' he said. ''I read Hillary's proposal and I don't think it's as good as Edwards'.

But I want to see if she moves or if Obama moves.'' REUTERS GT RK2345

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