DES MOINES, Iowa --Tonight, the voters are hitting the reset button on the presidential campaign.
Both the Democratic and Republican contests will be reshaped nationally, perhaps in surprising ways, by Iowa's caucuses, the first voter test of the '08 race. Key questions surrounding the most wide-open presidential election in decades are about to get real answers.
How big a threat does Illinois Sen. Barack Obama pose to Hillary Rodham Clinton's national standing? Has the Democratic contest become a two-person fight already, or are John Edwards' long-shot chances still alive?
Is Mike Huckabee for real? If so, will there be a four-way Republican nomination scramble, and a John McCain revival, next Tuesday in New Hampshire?
Iowa winners have historically gotten a boost heading into New Hampshire's leadoff primary. But there is less time than ever between the first contests this year, which could magnify Iowa's influence.
"We like to say that Iowans pick corn and we pick presidents," said Dave Carney, a seasoned New Hampshire strategist. But tonight's results "will have a lot more impact, with this compressed schedule, than at any time in the past," he said.
A blitz of last-minute campaigning - on the ground, over the phone, in the mail and on TV and radio - was bringing the most expensive Iowa race in history to a close yesterday.
"After all the town meetings, the pie and coffee, it comes down to this: Who's ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on Day 1," said Clinton, in a two-minute TV speech broadcast across the state last evening. She also taped a brief appearance for David Letterman's return to late-night television.
The New York senator and former first lady has mounted a vast organizational effort to turn out her supporters, many of them older women energized by the prospect of electing the first female president but new to the caucus process.
Weak support from men is one reason that Clinton has slipped behind Obama, according to a final pre-caucus poll by The Des Moines Register. The newspaper's opinion surveys, considered the gold standard in this state, correctly called Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's victory over Howard Dean in 2004, as well as Edwards' late surge into second place.
Independent voters, mostly caucus newcomers, are giving Obama an edge, according to the poll. Strategists for Clinton have disputed the findings, which, they say, overestimate the number of independents who show up at the caucuses, traditionally the domain of party regulars.
Weather, often a worry, is not expected to be a factor, with clear skies and temperatures in the low 20s for the start of the caucus meetings at 7 p.m. That could work to the disadvantage of Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, whose support among longtime activists would be diluted by a big turnout of new voters, his aides acknowledge.
Republican strategists will be watching the turnout for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spent millions on TV ads and traditional organization in Iowa, only to be overtaken in recent weeks by Huckabee, whose social conservatism and religiosity have galvanized evangelical voters and made him a serious contender.
Huckabee, capitalizing on his celebrity, flew to California for a caucus-eve appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In 1992, another former Arkansas governor running for president, Bill Clinton, played his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show.
Before strapping on an electric bass at a campaign rally the other night, the one-time Baptist minister said that if he wins, "we will make political history like it's never been made in Iowa or America," overcoming a barrage of negative ads and getting "outspent 20-to-1" by Romney.
With little campaign organization of his own, Huckabee has turned to an informal network of evangelical churches, home-schooling groups and local conservatives. In 1988, evangelical voters helped Pat Robertson finish second in Iowa, ahead of Vice President George Bush, who bounced back to win the Republican nomination.
The political resurgence of evangelical Christians, who could cast up to half the Republican caucus vote, has mainstream Republicans increasingly worried about a backlash against their party in November. Several prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Robert D. Ray, a moderate, wrote an open letter in The Des Moines Register this week pleading with "traditional Republicans" not to sit out tonight's caucuses.
Meanwhile, McCain, who has spent little time in Iowa and has not aired TV commercials in the state, flew in from New Hampshire for an 11th-hour campaign swing after the Register poll showed him moving up into third place.
The Arizona senator is in a close race in New Hampshire with Romney, who has been forced to fight a two-front battle in the early states that he is counting on to make him a national contender.
With Iowa very much in doubt, Romney cautioned against reading too much into the returns, telling supporters in the Des Moines area that the race is "not going to be over after Iowa" and probably not after New Hampshire, either.
Some independent analysts have said the Iowa vote won't be decisive. But the first-place candidate in contested Republican and Democratic caucuses has gone on to win the presidential nomination eight out of 11 times since 1976.
Beyond the top Republican tier, only Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, are given a chance of making it into the top three. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who once boasted that he'd win Iowa, has abandoned the state and has been slipping in New Hampshire and in national polling.
Among Democrats, three of the party's better known figures, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, were in single digits in the final Register poll, far behind the leaders. Under party rules, candidates who get less than 15 percent support in a precinct cannot qualify for convention delegates.
That could make second choices an important factor on the Democratic side; Republicans have no such rule. Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, standing at 1 percent in the Register poll, has asked supporters to make Obama their second choice.
Since the early 1970s, when the caucuses became a factor in national politics, no candidate in either party has been nominated for president after finishing lower than third in Iowa.
The Iowa caucuses, 1992-2004
1992 candidates - Dem.: Tom Harkin; GOP: No balloting
Eventual nominees - Dem.: Bill Clinton; GOP: President George Bush
1996 candidates - Dem.: President Clinton; GOP: Bob Dole
Eventual nominees - Dem.; Clinton; GOP: Dole
2000 candidates - Dem.: Al Gore; GOP: George W. Bush
Eventual nominees - Dem.: Gore; GOP: Bush
2004 candidates - Dem.: John Kerry; GOP: President Bush
Eventual nominees - Dem.: Kerry; GOP: Bush