DES MOINES, Iowa - After months of campaigning, dozens of debates and countless polls, four Democrats remain locked in a close race as Iowans prepare to cast the first meaningful votes of the 2004 presidential contest tonight.
"These numbers are bouncing around. This is a volatile race," said Gephardt, who won Iowa in 1988 and faces elimination if he loses here tonight. "This thing is a dead heat. Everybody's in the fight."
Tonight's results are expected to give a clearer picture of the presidential campaign heading into next week's New Hampshire primary, where retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark has cut into Dean's lead. As Dean was receiving words of praise from former President Jimmy Carter yesterday, Clark got the endorsement of former Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.
Dean's apparent advantage in Iowa has evaporated over the past two weeks as undecided voters began making up their minds. Despite the slide, Dean could still win here because of his organization's strength and the polls' tendency to understate support for insurgent candidates, according to neutral Democrats and some officials of rival camps.
But a competing theory holds that the unprecedented level of campaign spending, television advertising and round-the-clock news coverage will produce a record turnout that gives the caucuses more of the dynamic of a primary, in which late-voter mood shifts are often decisive. That could give Kerry and Edwards an edge.
Edwards is hoping to benefit from his rural roots, which have often helped presidential candidates in Iowa. The North Carolina senator, who has surged furthest in the recent polls, tried to rebut the notion that he lacks the organizational ability to convert his rising popularity into a caucus victory.
After a rally in Davenport, the first of five stops on his schedule yesterday, Edwards said he had spent the past year building an effective Iowa campaign organization "from the bottom up" and would demonstrate its strength tonight.
Kerry - who was atop the field in a poll published yesterday by the Des Moines Register that showed the race is too close to call - is rebounding in New Hampshire as news from Iowa spreads. The early favorite in the Democratic contest last year until Dean emerged, Kerry tried to dodge the front-runner label to keep expectations in check.
"Iowa voters are remarkably independent. They study this. They look. They work at it," Kerry said on ABC's This Week. "And I'm going to keep campaigning for every vote out here."
Kerry also took a slap at Dean and Edwards' lack of experience in Washington.
"This is not the time for on-the-job training or guessing about where a president might go on national security," said Kerry, who later made Iowa campaign stops with his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Meanwhile, Dean attended Carter's Sunday school class in Plains, Ga., before returning to Iowa, where he has been campaigning for almost two years. In a surprise, Dean's wife, Judy, whose absence from the campaign has drawn criticism, appeared with him at rallies in Davenport and Cedar Rapids.
Carter stopped just short of delivering a formal endorsement when he and Dean spoke to reporters and Dean supporters on the main street in the southern Georgia town.
Carter praised the Vermonter for his "courageous" and "outspoken" anti-war views, and described him as "my friend" and "a fellow Christian."
Dean strategists hope the warm words and the images of Carter and Dean together will help Dean in Iowa, where Carter remains a well-liked figure.
Dean has modeled his outsider candidacy on Carter's 1976 campaign, which took off after his surprise victory in Iowa.
Carter disagreed with those who question the ability of Dean, "a Yankee," to win in the South. He compared them to doubts about his prospects as a Southerner in northern states, which, he said, proved to be unfounded.
Carter also indicated that he shared a kinship with Dean, whose verbal gaffes reminded him of troubles he encountered as a first-time presidential candidate. "His outspoken nature, sometimes saying things that might have to be retracted - which I had to do as well when I ran for president - has made it very harmonious between me and him," Carter said.
As the Iowa campaign drew to a close, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the choice of 3 percent of likely caucus-goers in the Des Moines Register poll, spent yesterday campaigning in the state.
Republicans are holding their caucuses tonight, as well, with President Bush running unopposed for renomination.
In its final hours, the Democratic contest seemed more fluid than ever as voters prepared to attend their local caucuses. The public meetings, held in 1,993 locations around the state, will begin at 8 p.m. EST. Official results aren't expected for several hours.
The new Des Moines Register survey, completed Friday, found that half of those questioned said they were undecided or might switch to another candidate tonight.
Unlike a primary election, caucuses are primarily an organizational test. Campaigns must first identify supporters, then persuade them to venture out on a frigid evening to their assigned caucus site. The merits of the candidates are discussed, and voters must stand up in front of friends and neighbors to publicly announce their choice.
Dean and Gephardt are reputed to have the best campaign operations, which could help them overcome their failure to sustain the momentum that once had them leading in this state. Dean claims to have more than 3,000 volunteers, many from elsewhere in the country, while Gephardt is relying heavily on labor unions backing his candidacy.
Kerry intensified his ground operation last month, bringing in a highly regarded Boston campaign organizer, Michael Whouley, who was credited with turning around Vice President Al Gore's slumping field operation in New Hampshire four years ago.
Weather across the state is expected to be clear but bitterly cold today, with temperatures falling below zero at night. The presidential forecast is considerably cloudier, as this year's race might be the closest ever, and polling in caucus contests is notoriously unreliable.
That hasn't stopped news organizations from widely reporting the results of daily tracking polls, such as one by Zogby International for MSNBC and Reuters. The latest numbers, released yesterday, had Kerry at 24 percent, Dean at 23 percent, Gephardt at 19 percent and Edwards at 18 percent.
The poll's 4.5 percent margin of error meant that none of the contenders had a clear advantage. But local news outlets have proclaimed Kerry the front-runner, which could help him with voters who want to go with the likely winner.
Behind the scenes, campaign officials were working to shape the way tonight's results will be interpreted by the news media.
Dean's strategists, for example, stopped playing down the possibility that anyone other than Gephardt could defeat them in Iowa. They now entertain the prospect, at least hypothetically, that Dean could finish as low as fourth here, which would be a major setback.
Since Iowa's rise as a factor in presidential politics three decades ago, no candidate who finished lower than third has gone on to win the nomination.
At the same time, winning hasn't always been as important as exceeding expectations. Twenty years ago, Gary Hart's surprise second-place finish - 30 points out of first place - was enough to boost him to an upset victory in New Hampshire eight days later.
Gephardt might have more to lose than anyone. His chances of winning the presidency would almost certainly be over if he doesn't prevail in Iowa, a state that he has called a must-win for him. "My message out here is striking a chord," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We are going to come out of here with a victory, and we're going to take it to New Hampshire."
Gephardt refused, however, to answer repeated questions about whether he would end his candidacy if he lost. His campaign is short on money, and polls show him running a distant sixth in New Hampshire.
The representative from St. Louis will leave Congress when his term ends next year. He began his first campaign for president in Iowa almost 20 years ago and has maintained close ties to the state ever since.