DES MOINES, Iowa -- On his first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, Rudolph W. Giuliani bragged that he would "win the caucus, and surprise everybody."
His boast was directed at insiders, who were wondering if the New Yorker was planning to fly right past this Corn Belt state. His campaign manager had hinted that Giuliani might spend his time hunting delegates elsewhere, perhaps in larger, friendlier, coastal places, such as California, Florida, New Jersey and New York.
Ever since Jimmy Carter went from nowhere to the White House by winning Iowa's kickoff caucuses, success in Iowa has been regarded as a key to gaining the presidency. Politicians, and the national news media, have promoted the idea that Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, are gateways to the nomination, and that candidates bypass Iowa at their peril.
But a new push by many other states, including Maryland, toward the front of the primary calendar is altering the campaign dynamic and leaving strategists sharply divided about the implications for 2008.
Eddie Mahe, a Republican consultant not aligned with a presidential candidate, believes the creaky Carter model is about to be retired.
The year 2008 "is not 1976," he said. Because of shifts in the primary schedule, shrinking audiences for newspapers and TV networks, and the rise of the Internet, he said, the small, early states "are going to have less and less importance." He argues that a well-funded candidate with a national reputation, such as Giuliani, could overcome any vulnerability in early, more conservative states by investing heavily in big states with more moderate voters, such as Florida and California, that will hold early primaries next winter.
Other politicians think the opening contests will be as important as ever this time, if not more so.
"Iowa and New Hampshire will still dominate the early going," said Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. That's "when the country really tunes in for the first time" to the presidential race.
Next year, for the first time, the country's most populous states are moving their primaries to early February, in an effort to influence the choice of a nominee. With as many as 22 states voting Feb. 5, that day will be the closest thing yet to a national primary, and it could well decide the nominations in both parties.
That means the primary season could effectively end barely three weeks after it opens in Iowa. That calculation is driving the record-breaking quest for early campaign cash - with more than $125 million raised by candidates in both parties in the first three months of this year.
The money chase is creating two classes of candidates: the haves and the have-littles. Fundraising success has separated the top three money-raisers in each party - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on the Democratic side; Mitt Romney, Giuliani and John McCain on the Republican - from the rest of the field.
It also may sharply reduce the chances that a long shot will catch fire and win a place on the national ticket.
That's exactly what happened in 1980, when George Bush, then a little-known former Texas congressman, upset heavily favored Ronald Reagan in Iowa's caucuses, a pivotal event in the rise of the Bush White House dynasty.
Ralph Brown, co-chairman of Bush's Iowa campaign that year, doubts that could happen now.
"You've got to be a national star to win the first national contest - the March 31 money contest [of 2007]," he said.
Questions about how much effort Giuliani will put into Iowa weren't settled by his recent visit, but if the state's importance is on the wane, it wasn't apparent last week, when nine presidential hopefuls, including Clinton, Obama, Romney and Edwards, campaigned around the state. Next weekend, all of the Republican presidential candidates are expected to speak at a state party dinner in Des Moines.
Huge audiences at recent events across the state, especially for Democratic candidates, reflect an unprecedented level of early enthusiasm.
"If I ever had a crowd like this in 2004, I don't remember it," Edwards told reporters after more than 1,500 supporters greeted him and wife Elizabeth at a rally in a Des Moines high school gym.
Iowa politicians say local news media outlets are devoting far more coverage to the campaign at this stage than before. Privately, some wonder whether the candidates, and the voters, can keep up the pace, or whether fatigue will set in if the intensity of the competition remains this high.
"You would think it's a week before the election here," said former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Yet even ordinary Iowans seem aware that something else has changed, too - that their state's reputation for discovering obscure but worthy candidates and elevating them into the national spotlight may be a thing of the past.
One day after Obama announced that he had raised more than $25 million, a woman lamented during a question-and-answer session with the candidate in Algona, Iowa, that big money was making it impossible "for an everyday man to get into the game, because it's so expensive."
Some voters, interviewed at campaign events around the state, appear to be writing off lesser-known candidates, nine months before caucus night.
Joe Russell, a retired design engineer from Boone, Iowa, admires Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican who has made weekly campaign visits to Iowa since January. He said the former Wisconsin governor "doesn't have enough name recognition and hasn't raised enough money" to compete.
Romney of Massachusetts, leading the Republican money chase but lagging in the polls, is using some of his millions to air TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney said the early states will be "even more important" in 2008, "given the approaching calendar." He told reporters, during a stop at the Iowa state capitol, that "the nation as a whole will pay more attention to what's happening in these early states, to get a sense of the character and vision of the people who are running for office. I sure hope so."
And Iowa voters make it clear that they still expect to poke, prod and, occasionally hug, the presidential contenders.
"We get to touch the candidates on a daily basis. It's not difficult to get in front of one," said Bill Kimball, a Republican from the Des Moines suburbs. If the candidates "are not here, shaking hands on a regular basis, people in Iowa think that's a snub."
Democrats and Republicans alike are careful to cater to those expectations. Obama, who took questions from voters (but not reporters) at each stop on his latest Iowa campaign swing, praises the state's tradition of up-close presidential politicking.
"I know that you folks in Iowa, you like to lift the hood, kick the tires, take every candidate out for a test drive," he said.
But like other top-tier candidates, Obama is running hard elsewhere, too, with an eye toward the crush of contests that will take place before Valentine's Day. In between Senate sessions in Washington over the next two weeks, he's scheduled to touch down in at least seven states that will hold primaries in the crucial period immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire.