Thursday, January 3, 2008

Months of campaigning come down to final hours in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- Mike Huckabee is touring the state with actor Chuck Norris. Hillary Clinton is distributing snow shovels to volunteers. John Edwards is on a 36-hour sprint, forsaking sleep to hold around-the-clock campaign events.

Barack Obama appears with daughters Malia, left, and Sasha during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa.

1 of 3 more photos » After countless visits, dozens of policy speeches, more than $40 million in television advertising, and months -- if not years -- of building statewide political operations, the battle for Iowa comes down to one simple reality: The Republican and Democrat who turns out the most supporters wins the day.

And a win or a loss in the Iowa caucuses could very well determine the next president of the United States.

That's why the candidates are trying to convince every one of their supporters, young and old, to brave the biting January cold and attend one of the 1,781 caucuses around the state.

"We are very much in the turnout mode, and our effort to ID new supporters, while still continuing in small ways, is certainly not as robust as our turnout," said Gentry Collins, Iowa state director for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. "We are now working to contact all of the people we have identified over the course of a year as Romney supporters to talk to them about where the caucus is, what time it starts, and understanding the process itself." Learn how the caucuses work »

Every supporter is critical in this contest that historically produces very low turnout. The Iowa Democratic Party said 124,000 people participated in the 2004 caucuses, while the Republican Party of Iowa estimated that 87,000 people took part in the 2000 caucuses (President Bush ran unchallenged for a second term in 2004).

The candidates might disagree on matters of policy, but in the closing week of the Iowa campaign they are working from the same script on political strategy. Some candidates rode in buses, while others took planes to cities and towns across this state in 11th-hour drives to give one final boost of adrenalin to their candidacies. See the challenges facing each candidate »

"We love you Mike," a Huckabee supporter shouted out during one such event Tuesday evening at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Huckabee answered in kind, but punctuated it with a very pointed request.

"I love you too, but we have got to stop meeting like this," he said. "We have got to meet at the caucuses Thursday night."

While there are no clear front-runners in the Democratic or Republican contests, there is probably no other candidate relying almost entirely on momentum to fuel his candidacy than Huckabee. He is a former Arkansas governor, who was known more for his dramatic weight loss than his politics.

For most of 2007, Huckabee languished in the single digits in the polls, and he had very little success raising money. Still, he never threw in the towel, and watched his fortunes start to turn with a surprise second-place showing in August at the Ames straw poll.

His momentum really picked up in the final six weeks of the year when social conservatives -- an important voting bloc in Iowa -- began to move his way. Huckabee, who is also an ordained Baptist minister, overtook Romney in the Hawkeye State polls, as well as seeing his numbers increase nationally.

But while it appears Huckabee has momentum, his ground operation does not match Romney's, a former Massachusetts governor who has spent millions of dollars identifying supporters. Instead, Huckabee said his get-out-the-vote operation will be driven by a mixture of official campaign activity and grassroots support from home-schoolers and backers of the Second Amendment.

Not all Republicans are focusing on Iowa. Rudy Giuliani, a front-runner in national polling, is skipping Iowa and focusing his sights on February 5 when more than 20 states will hold nominating contests. John McCain is staking his fortune on New Hampshire, a state he won in 2000 in his losing bid for the GOP nomination.

But McCain, who is also feeling a surge of support after his campaign imploded last summer, is returning to the state for the final hours before the caucuses. If McCain is able to place third in the caucuses it will be another thread in the storyline of the resurrection of his campaign.

Meanwhile, former Sen. Fred Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter will likely need strong showings in Iowa to keep their campaigns going, while Rep. Ron Paul is likely to ride his surge of popularity through February 5 no matter where he places in the early contests.

On the Democratic side, Clinton and Edwards are battling Sen. Barack Obama for their party's nomination in a contest that has come down to two main themes: change and experience. Clinton is working to convince Iowa caucus goers she has the experience to enact change, while Edwards and Obama preach that she is too much of a Washington insider to bring change to the nation's capital.

Obama got a little boost Tuesday when third-tier candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich urged his supporters to back Obama on the second ballot if Kucinich does not reach viability on the first vote.

Iowa Democrats, unlike Republicans, have a more complicated system in determining a candidate's viability. Republican caucus-goers are asked their support for a candidate only one time during the event. Democrats are asked twice: an initial question of support, and then if their candidate does not reach the 15 percent threshold to achieve viability the supporter can back another candidate.

"It is a dead heat," said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager. "It has been for several weeks."

The second tier of Democratic candidates: Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will all need strong showings in Iowa or risk incurring a fatal blow to their campaigns.

Traditionally, there are three tickets out of Iowa to the New Hampshire primary, but in this unpredictable 2008 election cycle it is likely more than three candidates in each party will be heading to the Granite State late Thursday night after the Iowa results are announced.

The spotlight will then pan east as candidates, campaign aides and the national media pull up stakes in Iowa and descend on New Hampshire as political ground zero for the next five days. E-mail to a friend

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