Iowa '08: A Report From Planet Caucus, By Kim Stolz

The election hysteria begins the moment you set foot on a plane for Iowa ...

From the moment you step onto a plane headed for Iowa this week, you're immersed in an ongoing discourse about the candidates, the election and the caucus, which is quickly approaching. The results will be in late Thursday night — and we will have our first indication of the Democratic and Republican front-runners on the road to the White House.

In Des Moines, every business, restaurant, store and office building has been converted into a player in the crazy carnival that is the Iowa caucus.

The Polk County Convention Center is the hub of all the madness. A huge room has become crowded with seemingly every network on the planet, from CNN and NBC to Czech TV and independent bloggers. Interviews are happening right and left, and all of us listen in for new clues about who will win on Thursday night. The results will be displayed on a giant screen in front of the room, and the candidates will all be tuning in from remote locations, where they will be waiting with their families, friends and staffs to hear the count.

For first-time caucusers, the experience of this room is unlike any other. It is replete with the politics-obsessed and bustling with a kind of energy that, to those who have been following the campaign closely, finally puts everything we've been reading and writing in context.

Senator Barack Obama had a 7-point lead over Senator Hillary Clinton and 8 points over John Edwards, according to the Des Moines Register's final poll before the caucus — however, other polls have Clinton, Obama and Edwards in a dead heat. This has caught some Edwards supporters off guard, considering the substantial amount of time he has spent in Iowa. If Edwards comes in third place — or perhaps even second — he may not gain the extra support (especially the financial support) that is needed for him to remain a viable contender.

As we visit and stand in the middle of Obama's Des Moines office, the room is in high spirits as the volunteers work the phones incessantly, attempting to bring out every person they can and hold their apparent lead over Clinton and Edwards.

One of the most interesting things we've seen here in Des Moines is the number of people who want to vote in the caucus but are unable to. Unlike an election, there is no absentee voting in the caucus. This affects many Iowans — including single parents, babysitters, evening workers and others with obligations that could keep them away from the caucus' evening hours. Indeed, critics of the caucus claim that this first leg of election results is not representative of a real Iowa vote, but nonetheless, historically, winning the Iowa caucus launches a strong wave of voters and funding for candidates.

Check back for more on this evening's festivities, as we attend events for Obama, Romney, Edwards and other candidates — and more from Iowa this week!