As we continued our Iowa travels in the days leading up to next week's presidential caucuses here, NPR photographer Becky Lettenberger and I have been struck by the utter seriousness of the state's Republican voters.
Presidential caucus seasons past have often been marked by fun and some frivolity at campaign events: Funny T-shirts and hats, jokes and punch lines offered up by candidates, a sense of hope and anticipation.
Not so this year. Republican voters — especially the undecided ones we've been seeking out — are dead serious, not easily moved to applause, and pressing for answers as thoughtful as their questions, and signs they've found a candidate they believe can lead — and can win next fall.
In our ongoing effort to chronicle the voices of the state's undecided voters, we headed to events for Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the central Iowa city of Indianola, and to a boisterous rally for Texas Rep. Ron Paul Wednesday night in Des Moines.
Here's what we saw and heard.
Ron Wyckoff, 61, of Carlisle, retired from the heating and air conditioning business, at the Perry event:
"Rick Perry is leading for me right now because I like the idea of his faith and I've heard he's a doer. But still in the running? Mitt Romney because of his electability and business background and Michele Bachmann because she has lots of good ideas," he said. "Newt Gingrich would be a tremendous debater but may not be electable. I want someone who can beat Obama."
Celma Higgins, 63, of New Virginia, at the Perry event:
"I think Gingrich has oratorical skills and is someone who can beat Obama," said Higgins, who came to the Perry event with her friend, Janet Erwin, a Perry supporter. "But I liked Herman Cain first - his business sense, the freshness of him not being from Washington, D.C." Higgins, who voted for Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, says she "likes him if he is what he says he is." But he already had his chance four years ago, she says, "and didn't make it."
Katherine Burns, 18, of Des Moines, and a senior at East High School:
"We're candidate hopping," said Burns, who with a couple friends planned to attend at least three candidate events on Wednesday. "What am I looking for? I'm not quite sure." Burns will be a first-time caucus-goer, and, it turns out, does have some idea of what she wants in her candidate: "Security, security for families, helping families to be able to be supportive," she said.
Edith Hirsch, 81, of Indianola, at the Perry event:
"There's a lot of sorting out you've got to do," Edith Hirsch said. "I like Perry's idea of a part-time Congress, but I don't know if that's feasible or not." She says she is leaning toward Romney, whom she voted for in the 2008 caucuses, because "he's been a success in business, leadership in government." She's not been persuaded by her granddaughter, a Ron Paul supporter, because of what she views as his isolationist foreign policy views. "We live in a different world than what he's talking about," she said.
Natividad Hirsch, 18, Edith Hirsh's granddaughter and a senior at Indianola high school:
"It's hard to find a perfect solution. I'm for Ron Paul because he's for getting our troops out of other nations, and he doesn't come off as fake to me as the others do."
Rick Halvorsen, 54, insurance salesman in Indianola and chairman of the Warren County Republicans:
"I'm stuck between three candidates — Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry," Halvorsen said at the Bachmann event. "I told Santorum's people that I'd support him, but now I don't know." Halvorsen said he'd like to see support coalesce behind one of his three favorites — "I don't care who gets in the front seat" — to thwart Romney. "We're not interested in working for Mitt Romney," he said.
Gregory Welsher, 65, Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and retired postal worker from Hampton:
"At first I was leaning toward Perry because he seemed like the outsider. But I didn't like it when I heard he was taking a state pension and salary as governor at the same time," says Welsher, who came to Wednesday night's Paul rally with his neighbor, a Paul supporter. After the rally, Welsher, who has never participated in a caucus, said he was moving toward Paul. "Why do we got our noses up in everybody's business in the world?" he said. "Why don't we keep that money at home?"