The candidates' voices are hoarse from endless weeks of stumping in homes, union halls, restaurants and anywhere else they might scare up some supporters. Iowa residents are likely sick to death of the flood of mailings, phone calls, door hangers, posters, attack ads and solicitations to support one of the more than two dozen men and one woman who they've been assured will be the next president of the United States.
With little more than 24 hours to go before the Hawkeye State takes center stage in the race to the White House, there's one thing we know for sure: Everything is up for grabs. While some of the candidates will be going home with a big, fat goose egg, others will find themselves taking a decisive early lead.
Most of the recent polls show Democratic front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton, who previously appeared to have a strong hold in the state, in a dead heat with main challengers Senator Barack Obama and two-time presidential candidate John Edwards. Meanwhile, Republican front-runner ex-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who also previously appeared to have led in Iowa, has seen his lead erased by hard-charging ex-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, whose own surge has shrunk in recent days.
This means that for the citizens of the rural state, which has grown accustomed to the harsh glare of the spotlight every four years due to its fiercely protected first-in-the-nation voting status, the lights are even brighter in 2008. When the doors open on the state's nearly 2,000 voting precincts Thursday night — in public libraries, schools, fire stations, church basements and living rooms — the arguments and decisions made in those rooms will quickly provide a wake-up call to the top contenders.
The caucuses are open to any registered member of the Republican or Democratic Party, with the GOP voting on winner-take-all secret ballots to determine which delegates will attend county conventions on behalf of the chosen candidate. At the county conventions, delegates are chosen to attend state-congressional-district conventions, where the delegates to the national convention are picked.
For Democrats, the process is a bit different. Supporters of each candidate divide into groups, and if a candidate's percentage of the total number of voters isn't large enough, their members join other candidates' groups. The delegates are then divided among the finalized groups according to the percentage of attendees they represent. The process is repeated in county and state conventions, with the candidates receiving delegates proportionately at the national convention.
Democrats will begin caucusing at 6:30 p.m. and Republicans at 7 p.m., with most expected to wrap up by 8 p.m. Turnout could be higher than usual thanks to decent weather — temperatures are expected in the mid-20s, with no sign of snow — and the intense media attention paid to the state this year, with predictions of 120,000-150,000 Democrats and 80,000-90,000 Republicans expected to participate. The results in Iowa could play a big part in what happens in Tuesday's equally pivotal New Hampshire primary, which has a similarly too-close-to-call slate of front-runners. Unlike caucuses, primaries are almost identical to general elections, with voters going to polling places to cast a ballot for their preferred candidates. Primaries generally attract more voters than caucuses because they require less of a time commitment, which is why Iowa caucus-goers tend to be more dedicated political activists.
Iowa has been a kingmaker and campaign-breaker in the past, but in the first election in nearly 100 years in which no incumbent president or vice president is running, the tightness of Thursday's race has led to a more vigorous — and at times testy — campaign than usual. The spin began within hours after The Des Moines Register, the most influential paper in the state, hit stoops on New Year's Day with a banner headline declaring Obama ahead of Clinton by a margin of 32 percent to 25 percent (with Edwards just behind at 24 percent) and Huckabee leading with 32 percent to Romney's 26 (with Senator John McCain back at 13 percent). According to Clinton and Edwards campaign blog posts that questioned the results, the Register poll had an unusually high sample of independent voters, who overwhelmingly support Obama but who have rarely shown up in big numbers at the polls.
Clinton's camp cited recent CNN and Zogby polls that put Clinton ahead of Obama by a statistically slim 33 to 31 percent. That same New Year's Day poll gave Romney a slight 31 to 28 percent lead over Huckabee, which is effectively wiped out by the 5 percent sampling error.
Regardless of the constantly shifting polls, as a frigid new year dawned in Iowa, one thing remained the same: The potshots at rivals continued and intensified. McCain lashed out at Romney over his lack of foreign-policy credentials in a foreboding Web-only ad that featured violent images of burning cars and bloodied bodies, making use of a Romney quote about how the next president doesn't need foreign-policy experience. Meanwhile, Romney kept his eye on Huckabee, bashing — without actually naming — his rival for a statement that was reported in Iowa newspaper the Quad-City Times regarding a recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. "President Bush didn't read it for four years," Huckabee reportedly said. "I don't know why I should read it in four hours."
While Iowa could boost the prospects of Obama and Huckabee, others are likely to begin thinking about folding up their tents if they don't place in at least the top four. Among those polling in single digits or predicted to land outside the top four are Democrats Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who moved to Iowa with his wife and two daughters last year to build support. Long-shot Republicans include anti-war congressman and Internet-fundraising maverick Texas Representative Ron Paul, and California Representative Duncan Hunter. Rudy Giuliani is also doing poorly in Iowa, according to Pollster.com, and The Baltimore Sun reports that he will be in New Hampshire through Tuesday, trying to ratchet up support in that state instead.
The one sure thing is that as soon as the Iowa votes are tallied, stakes will be quickly pulled up and Tuesday's vote in New Hampshire will be front and center, followed by Republican and Democratic contests in Michigan (January 15), Nevada (January 19), South Carolina (January 26) and Florida (January 29). Most experts are predicting that the respective parties' candidates could come into sharp focus by "Super Tuesday" (February 5), when more than 20 states caucus or vote in primaries, including such crucial delegate-rich ones as New York and California.
[This story was originally published on 1.2.2008 at 2:28 p.m. ET]