INDIANOLA, Iowa (Reuters) - As the January 3 vote in Iowa to choose U.S. presidential nominees nears, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is making an unusual plea to voters — pick me second if you don’t pick me first.
The request is part of the Illinois senator’s final pitch just a few days before the caucus vote in Iowa launches the state-by-state contest to pick a nominee from each party for the 2008 race for the White House.
“Even if you’re not caucusing for me, go to caucus,” Obama told several hundred people in a church’s parish hall in this town south of Des Moines.
“Make me your second choice, although you are wiser making me your first,” he said to laughter and applause.
To another crowd in Knoxville, Obama issued a similar appeal but added that he realized people might have already committed to vote for another candidate and “you’re kind of embarrassed about it ... then make me your second choice.”
In the Iowa contest’s system in which voters gather in groups — or caucuses — to select a candidate, Republicans do not have an option for a second choice. But with the state’s complex system for Democrats, a voter’s second choice could be as important as the first.
Under the rules, a Democratic candidate must receive at least 15 percent support of the attendees in each precinct to be considered viable. Since the votes are held in rooms where supporters gather in separate groups depending on their preferred candidate, they can move to another if their first choice fails to get the 15 percent support.
The top three Democratic candidates — Obama, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — are neck-and-neck in recent polls in the state.
But polls show the other four Democratic candidates are not expected to get to the magic 15 percent mark, so their supporters will be vital vote sources for the front-runners.
Obama has only recently begun to ask people to consider him as their second choice.
“It’s a delicate subject, because you don’t want to say to people — ‘hey, the guy you like probably ain’t going to be there’ and ... when you bring up second choice, that’s what you’re saying,” said Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod.
“But we’re toward the end now and it’s obviously very close and the second choices are going to be important so it’s important to make the ask,” said Axelrod. “Right now it looks like a dead heat so certainly second choices will be important.”
A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll on Monday found Clinton, Obama and Edwards in a tight race, while the other four candidates had a combined 12 percent of the vote.
Edwards was the most popular second choice with 28 percent, while Obama had 25 percent and Clinton garnered 14 percent.
An MSNBC-McClatchy poll released over the weekend also showed Edwards was the most popular second choice candidate with 36 percent, Obama had 25 percent and Clinton 11 percent.
Editing by Vicki Allen