DES MOINES, Iowa -- Surveying a sea of pumped-up activists at a campaign rally, Sen. Barack Obama asks if there are undecided voters in the crowd. Hundreds of Iowa hands pop up.
Converting these last-minute deciders - as many as one in four caucus-goers aren't locked in yet, according to Obama's campaign and others - could be key to winning Iowa, the first voter test of the 2008 presidential campaign, on Thursday night.
Obama has widened his lead over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the Democratic race, according to a new Des Moines Register poll released last night, which showed him with 32 percent among likely caucus-goers to 25 percent for Clinton and 24 percent for Edwards.
Yesterday, Huckabee called a press conference in Des Moines to unveil his latest TV commercial, a response ad designed to counter weeks of Romney's attacks on his record as governor of Arkansas. Then Huckabee announced, before screening the ad for reporters, that he'd just made a decision to yank the new commercial before it aired on Iowa stations.
The last-minute switch allowed Huckabee to claim the high ground in the campaign's closing days, even as snippets of his negative ad were being played on network newscasts. Later, to applause from supporters at a New Year's Eve reception at a local country club, he said he would be able to sleep "with peace in my heart that I know I've done the right thing, even if it's not the most politically conventional thing."
Huckabee said he would keep his campaign on a positive track, though he's been attacking Romney in highly personal terms since last week at rallies and in interviews.
Iowa voters have punished negative campaign tactics in the past, including in 2004, and the top Democratic candidates in particular are carefully avoiding direct clashes this time. The closest they've come to striking sparks has been over the question of who has the best plan for providing universal health care, a goal they all endorse.
Distinctions among the top Democratic contenders are being drawn instead around competing images: anger (Edwards) versus experience (Clinton) versus change (Obama).
Polls show that change is the dominant mood among Iowa Democrats, and Obama of Illinois has benefited.
For the better part of a year, the senator has drawn large crowds, like the thousand people who crammed into a school gym on the south side of Des Moines the other night. His strategists are predicting a huge caucus turnout that will benefit Obama.
But many attending his rallies say in interviews that while they're intrigued by the celebrated newcomer and his well-deserved reputation as the most compelling speaker of the '08 contest, they're not sure he has enough experience for the job. To the extent that recent overseas events, including unrest in Pakistan, weigh on the minds of undecided voters, he could be further hampered.
Obama is "clearly someone that they are wrestling with whether to support," David Plouffe, his campaign manager, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
As Obama barnstorms the state in the final hours of the Iowa campaign, he's trying to close the sale with wavering voters. He tells them, tongue in cheek, that his task is to be so persuasive that "this epiphany" will occur: "Suddenly a light bulb goes off, a ray of light comes shining through, and you say to yourself, 'I must caucus for Obama.'"
One reflection of the complexity of his task: Obama's summing-up speeches are almost 50 minutes long.
Their message, and that of his campaign ads, has shifted more toward a fight with Edwards, rather than Clinton, for wavering voters, reflecting a dynamic that could decide who wins on caucus night. Edwards trails in national polls, but strategists for rival campaigns say he stands a good chance of finishing first in Iowa.
Increasingly, Obama is echoing Edwards' themes, trying to appeal to voters who might be moving toward the former North Carolina senator, who finished a close second here in 2004.
Like Edwards, Obama now rails against companies that shift jobs overseas and says he'd rein in corporate lobbyists and the same powerful interests that Edwards is targeting: oil, insurance and drug companies.
The differences are largely a matter of tone. Obama is contrasting his campaign's hopefulness with the harsh emotions of Edwards' more combative populist appeal. Without mentioning Edwards by name, Obama argues that anger is the last thing that's needed in Washington, already torn by excessive partisanship.
Responding to critics who call him naive and lacking crucial foreign policy experience, he says he learned about fighting for change as a community worker and state legislator. He had the judgment, he adds, while still in the Illinois Senate, to speak out against the 2002 Iraq war resolution (which Clinton and Edwards supported).
From the outset, he's portrayed his candidacy as a departure from conventional politics, and on the stump in Iowa, he's trying to make it seem more like a social crusade than a typical campaign. He mentions the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at every stop, implicitly tying his effort to become the first African-American elected president to the civil rights movement, and giving idealistic voters a chance to feel that they're joining a historic crusade.
His events draw a much younger crowd than Edwards' and especially Clinton's, whose audiences tilt heavily toward older women, but Obama's coalition is more diverse than the college students he is counting on for support.
"We need a fresh face," says Eva Lebeck, 80, a retired practical nurse from Knoxville, Iowa, who calls Obama "a very smart man." She observes that all of the Democratic candidates "say about the same thing" but thinks "the big money in Washington might never own" the 46-year-old senator.
With a grass-roots organization that Democrats say is one of the best the state has ever seen, Obama is reaching out to Republicans, independents and other nontraditional Democratic voters, including evangelical Christians.
"Being a man of faith," Obama is the Democrat most likely to win support from members of his congregation, said Dan Berry, pastor of Cornerstone Family Church in Des Moines, where Huckabee worshiped on Sunday. The 2,000-member congregation is 40 percent black, according to Berry, in a state where blacks are just 2 percent of the population.
A 15,000-circulation newspaper in Des Moines that is distributed free at evangelical churches - and at a Huckabee rally last week -published an article claiming that Obama's "expected presidential candidacy" was part of a Muslim plot to undermine the U.S. government at the highest levels. Dick White, the paper's publisher, said he stood by the contents of the article, which he said he copied from a Web site that he could not remember.
Obama's campaign has tried to discourage mainstream news organizations from reporting on the whisper campaign. Campaign aides say their internal polling shows that only a small percentage of voters are confused about Obama's religion (he is a member of the United Church of Christ).
But it is enough of a concern that Obama, as he comes down to the finish in Iowa, feels compelled to bring it up, as he asks voters to stand up for him at the caucuses.
"People [are] making phone calls," he says, "talking about how my name is funny and, you know, what my religion is. But you know what? We've seen this script before. ... This is what happens right at the end, when Washington ... tries to prevent change from happening."
Then he adds, as the applause builds, that his unnamed adversaries won't succeed and that, "if you believe in change, then it happens. ... We will change the world, if you believe."