Campaigns fight to finish line in Iowa

Candidates rally for last minute votes
January 2, 2008 8:16:24 PM PST
Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards closed out a long, grueling Iowa caucus campaign Wednesday night with statewide television appeals, each seeking an early triumph in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Leading Republicans exchanged routine unpleasantries on a final day of campaigning. "You just don't know what is going to happen," confessed Mitt Romney, unwilling to forecast success over Republican rival Mike Huckabee in Thursday's first contest of the race for the White House.

"This country is ready for a leader who will bring us together," Obama said in a two-minute commercial televised at the dinner hour. A first-term Illinois senator seeking to become the nation's first black president, he added, "That's the only way we're going to win this election. And that's how we'll actually fix health care, make college affordable, become energy independent and end this war."

Clinton, seeking to become America's first female president, reached out with a campaign-closing commercial broadcast of her own. "If you stand with me for one night, I will stand up for you every day as your president," she said. "I'll work my heart out to bring the country we love the new beginning it needs and I will be ready to start on Day One."

Edwards' campaign selected Doug Bishop, a laid-off Maytag worker, to deliver a televised pitch for the former North Carolina senator.

"I want a guy that's going to sit down and look a 7-year-old kid in the eye and tell him, 'I'm going to fight for your dad's job,"' Bishop said as he introduces Edwards to an Iowa crowd. "That's what I want. I'm going to do my best to make sure that my children aren't the first generation of Americans that I can't look them in the eye and say, 'You're going to have a better life than I had."'

Increasingly, the candidates looked beyond Iowa to the states that quickly follow. Republican Sen. John McCain spent most of the day in New Hampshire, which holds a primary on Jan. 8, and his campaign ordered television advertising in Michigan, with a primary one week later.

But first there was Iowa, snow piled high and frozen - and an electorate warmed by the attention of Republican and Democratic hopefuls in the most wide-open presidential race in a half-century or more.

Late pre-caucus polls generally pointed toward a close three-way finish among Democrats and an unpredictable two-man struggle for the Republicans. A quarter of likely caucus-goers reported they either had not made up their minds or could still change them. That wasn't a surprise in Iowa, where 21 percent of participants in the 2004 caucuses said they had made up their minds in the final three days .

That only added to the urgency of the campaigns, which stood ready with snow shovels and baby sitters - to make sure supporters were able to leave home for the caucuses - and delivered reminders to voters via Facebook and phone. Romney said his campaign made 12,000 calls on Sunday alone.

Unsurprisingly, there were reports of campaign dirty tricks - anonymous phone calls to Romney supporters directing them to incorrect caucus locations, and a recorded message disparaging former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who hoped for a third-place finish to rescue his faltering candidacy.

There were predictions of a heavy Democratic turnout from election officials in scattered locations, who also reported independents switching their registration to Democratic so they could vote. "From what I can ascertain from the calls that we're getting, it looks like the Democratic caucuses are just going to be flooded," said Richard Bauer, elections supervisor in Scott County along the state's eastern edge.

Obama, in particular, has bet his campaign on the support of first-time caucus-goers, independents as well as Democrats who could be attracted to his message of political change. A victory in Iowa would validate the strategy, and presumably give him a boost in New Hampshire, where independents can vote in either primary.

Romney, more than his Republican rivals, needed a first-place finish in Iowa, where he has outspent his foes by a wide margin in hopes of making himself the man to beat for his party's nomination. A win would allow him to turn back Huckabee's surprising ascent in Iowa, and give him bragging rights as he pivots to confront McCain in New Hampshire.

Polls in Iowa show McCain making last-minute headway since he received an endorsement from the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register. A third-place finish within reach, he decided to fly back for one final round of Iowa campaigning. "I have the knowledge, experience and judgment to lead this nation and to make sure we never ever send young Americans into combat to fight and to sacrifice unless our goal is victory," he told a crowd of about 100 people in an airport hangar in Dubuque.

Romney sounded almost nostalgic as he made his way through the day, but he found time to poke at both his leading rivals.

He defended himself against a McCain ad challenging his readiness to manage national security issues. "Senator McCain is an honorable person, He's been in the Senate for 25 years or more. And so people have a lot of talk there, a lot of suggestions about what other people ought to do, but I've actually been leading during that time."

Huckabee, his ascent powered by evangelical Christian voters, told voters he was a consistent conservative - a not-so-gentle reminder that Romney once supported abortion rights and gun control laws. "You can look at my record and find out that all the way back, as far as you can find me saying or doing anything, I believe the sanctity of human life is a key, critical cornerstone issue for the future of our country," he said in Fort Dodge.