NEVADA, Iowa -- Voters in Iowa will start choosing the next president this week, but the nomination fights in both parties aren't likely to end on caucus night.
Tight contests are boosting the chances for some opening surprises as the notoriously unpredictable Iowans, after closely studying the candidates for months, finally make their picks. Even campaign veterans are excited.
"What a race! We've never seen one like this," says Ed Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election drive. He recently re-entered the fray as campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee, the Cinderella candidate of 2008, who is favored to win the Republican caucuses Thursday night.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, trying to become the first woman nominated by a major party, appears to have pulled marginally ahead in a three-way race with Sen. Barack Obama, who would be the first African-American to head a party ticket, and John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee.
But if the Democratic result in Iowa is as close as the polls have been for months, the winner may have a hard time claiming a decisive victory.
Rolling across the state's frigid snow-covered prairie this weekend, the former first lady's blue campaign tour bus advertises the theme of her closing push. Big letters emblazoned on the sides announce that it's "Time to pick a president."
Iowa's caucuses played that influential role in the past, lifting Jimmy Carter and President Bush and his father all the way to the White House (in 1992, an Iowa senator's candidacy led Bill Clinton and other Democrats to skip the state). In 2004, Iowa proved pivotal again, with John Kerry sweeping to the nomination after he upset Howard Dean.
Changes in the primary schedule have pushed the caucuses into New Year's week, the earliest date ever. That hasn't diminished the excitement, at least among Democrats, who expect a record turnout. Reflecting the sharp differences between the parties, downbeat Republicans are predicting much more modest participation.
The new campaign calendar, designed to give other states a piece of the early action this year and diminish the impact of the opening tests in Iowa and New Hampshire, has had the opposite effect. Candidates have spent far more time and money in Iowa than ever, including more than $35 million on TV advertising, at least triple the previous record.
But several factors could combine to make this week's caucuses less definitive. Instead of giving the winners enough momentum to go all the way, Iowa voters may play their more traditional role: winnowing a few candidates in and others out.
On the Republican side, Iowa is likely to set the stage for New Hampshire's primary, five days later. With at least four candidates given a shot at the nomination, the race is more wide open than at any time in recent decades.
"It's definitely new for us," says Rollins. "We usually have someone who is an heir apparent."
No incumbent president or vice president is running, for the first time in more than half a century, and President Bush's unpopularity has Republican voters searching for someone to take the party in a new direction, polls show.
An emerging battle between religious conservative voters and establishment Republicans could break into the open if Huckabee wins Iowa. As much as half of the Republican caucus vote could be cast by evangelicals, who announced their arrival as a force in primary politics 20 years ago when they helped television evangelist Pat Robertson to a second-place caucus finish.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is running as a "Christian leader," but he claims his recent surge in state and national opinion surveys proves that he's broadened his support beyond religious. Either that, he says, or "evangelicals are the only ones answering polls right now."
The former Arkansas governor is counting on evangelical churches and home-schooling networks, rather than a conventional grass-roots organization. He drew an unusually large crowd of at least 1,000 people to a religiously themed rally in Des Moines the other night, underscoring the potential of that approach.
Huckabee's popularity is threatening to ruin the early-state strategy of Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who has invested heavily on TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. The wealthy venture capitalist has put at least $17 million of his own money into the race, but his candidacy might not survive losses in both states.
Romney has been attacking Huckabee for weeks, portraying him as soft on crime and illegal immigration. Yesterday, in a sign that the attacks may be cutting into Huckbee's support, the Arkansan responded sharply, calling Romney's charge dishonest and questioning whether he could be trusted as president.
"If he wants to show contrast, let's do it," Huckabee told reporters at a campaign stop in Indianola. "Enough is enough." He refused to answer when asked if he'd vote for his rival if Romney became the Republican nominee.
Even if Huckabee wins Iowa, he's unlikely to repeat in New Hampshire, where economic conservatives dominate and a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last week found that his Christian conservatism is a significant negative factor. That has created an opening for Sen. John McCain, who won the 2000 New Hampshire primary over George W. Bush.
McCain returned to Iowa last week in hopes of sparking a better-than-expected finish. He's started to rebound from a backlash against his support for an immigration overhaul plan that, he concedes, is "hurting me all over America."
Former Iowa state auditor Richard Johnson, a leading McCain supporter, says the Arizona senator has a chance to edge Fred Thompson out for third place in the caucuses and may even challenge Romney for second.
McCain says Iowa could help him in New Hampshire, a must-win primary, according to his campaign manager.
"The 'comeback kid' is always uppermost in my mind," says McCain, 71, with a grin. "I look forward to that name."
The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has added new uncertainty, by reviving national security as a top issue in a campaign that had largely become a debate about health care (among Democrats) and immigration (Republicans).
Interviews with politicians and voters in Iowa last week raised doubts whether the events in Pakistan would sway many late-deciding voters (a quarter of likely caucus-goers say they could still change their mind, according to the Times/Bloomberg poll).
To the extent that world events and terrorism do sway votes, polls show they could help McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has largely written off Iowa and is hoping to keep his candidacy alive until Florida and other large states start voting a month from now. Several Democrats, including Clinton, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former U.N. ambassador, could also benefit.
Clinton, who has made experience a central part of her message, spoke in highly personal terms about her connections to Bhutto last week, while describing herself as someone "who is prepared to deal with whatever happens to our country." She also sought to keep the issue alive by calling Friday for an independent international investigation into Bhutto's murder.
Obama, meantime, found himself on the defensive after his top strategist remarked that the war in Iraq, which Clinton and other Democratic candidates supported and Obama opposed, had spurred unrest in Pakistan and diverted U.S. attention from the hunt for al-Qaida.
Obama has sought to harness a strong desire for change among Democratic voters by casting himself as an transformational figure and Clinton as a representative of the old politics. He told 500 voters at a rally in the town of Nevada (pop. 6,600) that "the real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting different results. ... That's a risk we can't take."
His arguments persuaded Ed Tomka, who has heard Obama twice, along with Clinton, Biden and Edwards, over the last few months.
Clinton makes "a good case," says Tomka, a grain farmer and party activist, after attending her rally in Carroll, in west central Iowa. But "the change thing has hit me."
Obama's lack of experience at the national level isn't a problem for the 52-year-old Iowan.
"George Bush had his dad and Cheney and Rumsfeld, the best of the best. Just because you have the right experience doesn't mean you make the right decisions," he says. After 20 years of Clintons and Bushes in the White House, "it's time to start over."
But Hillary Clinton supporter Lon Diers, 71, retired from his can-recycling business in Carroll, thinks getting Bill Clinton back would be a bonus.
"She's the smartest one in the whole outfit," he says. "She'll be ready to start off from day one."
IOWA - DEMOCRATS
Hillary Rodham Clinton 29 % Barack Obama 26 % John Edwards 25 % Bill Richardson 6 %
NEW HAMPSHIRE - DEMOCRATS
Barack Obama 32 % Hillary Rodham Clinton 30 % John Edwards 18 % Bill Richardson 5 %
IOWA - REPUBLICANS
Mike Huckabee 37 % Mitt Romney 23 % John McCain 11 % Fred Thompson 11 % Rudy Giuliani 6 %
NEW HAMPSHIRE - REPUBLICANS
Mitt Romney 34 % John McCain 21 % Rudy Giuliani 14 % Mike Huckabee 9 % Ron Paul 6 %
The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News telephone poll was conducted Dec. 20-23 and Dec. 26 with 2,145 registered voters in Iowa and 1,279 in New Hampshire.
The margin of sampling error among Democratic primary and caucus voters in both states was plus or minus 4 percentage points; for Republican caucus voters in Iowa it was 6 percentage points; for Republican voters in New Hampshire it was 5 points.