The stakes in the U.S. presidential election may be the highest in decades, with danger spots multiplying around the world and economic threats looming at home.
The election process - the first in 56 years that doesn't involve an incumbent president or vice president - has moved into high gear after Barack Obama's upset of national front runner Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Democratic caucuses and a similar defeat in Iowa of Republican leader Mitt Romney by Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas.
Both Democrats and Republicans are stressing the election's importance, spending record amounts of money to convince voters they are best-suited to take on crises ranging from global terrorism and the war in Iraq to a housing slump that threatens to send the U.S. economy into recession.
"This is roughly like the time of the beginning of the Cold War, when the country was searching for a wise policy to meet the international challenges," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "That's really the big issue of this election." Domestic concerns are no less pressing. In addition to a wave of real-estate foreclosures, the economy is under stress from funding crises facing Medicare and Social Security, and 47 million Americans still lack health insurance.
"The issues are immense," says Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. "One of the big questions the next president will need to deal with is the economic insecurity of middle-class Americans. Another will be health care, which both parties now agree has become a serious problem." The only two recent elections where the stakes were clearly as high were in 1968, when the next president would have to confront the divisive Vietnam war, and in 1980, when the Iranian hostage crisis was undermining U.S. prestige abroad and stagflation was undermining the economy at home.
History has shown Iowa and New Hampshire to be make-or-break contests for some candidates. Democrat John Kerry capitalized on a come-from-behind victory in Iowa in 2004 to sweep through much of the rest of the country, and some pundits are suggesting that Obama may do the same.
Of the top three Democratic contenders, John Edwards, who finished second in Iowa, beating out Clinton 30 percent to 29 percent, appears to face the toughest challenge in New Hampshire, with polls showing him running behind Clinton and lacking the momentum of an Iowa win. If Obama wins in New Hampshire as well as Iowa, it would be much more difficult Clinton to catch up.
The Republican picture is more complicated. Romney has poured most of his energy into Iowa and New Hampshire and needs to win in New Hampshire to stay near the top. Sen. John McCain is depending on taking New Hampshire, a state he claimed in the 2000 primary.
The national Republican frontrunner, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, is hoping he can buck history and cruise to later victories - especially in big states, including California, New York and Illinois, which moved their primaries up to Feb. 5 - to claim the nomination. Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, is looking to the South.
Their strategies may backfire as attention focuses on the winners of the first two states.
"There's so little time after Iowa and New Hampshire for voters to take a second look," says Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "It's ironic because what other states have done in order to minimize the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire is to compress the calendar. In doing that, they made these two states even more important." Voters will make their choice amid a radically new political landscape from eight years ago. Trouble spots are mushrooming, a fact underlined by the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. North Korea and Iran also pose potential dangers to U.S. security.
Clinton argues that she has the best resume for the job. Obama says he can bring people together and has the right judgment on issues such as the Iraq war, which he opposed from the start. Edwards says he won't bend to special interests.
Republican candidates such as Huckabee and Romney highlight their experience. Giuliani stresses his handling of the Sept. 11 attacks and fiscal record as mayor. McCain touts his Senate accomplishments, and Thompson draws on his life outside politics, including as an actor.
Political analysts from both parties agree that change was something that voters in Iowa from both parties seemed to be looking for. The challenge for the leading contenders remaining in the race is to offer a compelling personal vision of change to a growing number of independent voters in New Hampshire and beyond.