DES MOINES, Iowa -- 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 to- night'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."
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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 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.
A few minutes before 7 on Wednesday night, around the time many families sit down to dinner, Rod Benfield was sitting at a conference table, punching numbers into a cell phone.
Laid out in front of him were spreadsheets listing home numbers for registered Republican voters. For two hours, Benfield and a half-dozen other dialers planned to work their way down the lists, telling strangers at the other end of the line why they should support Mitt Romney for president. The Romney campaign provided a box of cell phones.
"I told my wife the other night, there are about to be some long days," said Benfield, 40, a veteran political operative working as Romney's York County coordinator. "She knows. This isn't her first rodeo."
For Benfield and South Carolina volunteers from both parties, the presidential campaign season has entered crunch time as the Iowa caucus unfolds today and the S.C. primaries loom. Months of tedious behind-the-scenes work takes on a heightened level of urgency, with phone banks, roadside sign rollouts and neighborhood canvasses taking place every day.
On a recent Saturday, supporters of Mike Huckabee waved signs in front of the Rock Hill Galleria. They plan to continue their phone banks today. This weekend, Ron Paul backers will hit the streets to drum up votes in Fort Mill's Baxter Village.
Staffers for Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are managing similar operations as the only campaigns in town with official offices. Clinton's headquarters is on Oakland Avenue, while the Obama staff has a space on Ebenezer Road.
"You still have time to win their hearts and minds," said Benfield, noting surprise at how many undecided voters he has spoken to in recent weeks. "Most people don't get engaged until about right now. They're going to talk about it at their kitchen table and make their decisions. All we try to do is get the message out."
To get the message out, campaigns rely on volunteers with different styles and strengths. Benfield's outsized personality contrasts sharply with that of Robert Hussey, a Clinton volunteer who says he enjoys crunching numbers on a computer more than talking to voters.
"Some other people are better at that than I would be," said Hussey, 61, a retired truck driver from Rock Hill. "Everybody has their niche. I prefer to sort of work in the background."
More than other candidates, Obama's campaign is attracting volunteers who haven't taken part in primary races in the past. One example is Bob Went, a 61-year-old computer specialist from Tega Cay.
Went spent a recent Saturday going door-to-door in Tega Cay, a traditional Republican stronghold with a handful of Democrats scattered around. Last year, he manned a booth at the city's annual fall festival. He helped seat handicapped attendees when Obama visited Northwestern High School in October.
When Democrats go to the polls Jan. 26, Went expects to find himself behind the wheel of a van, giving rides to Obama supporters who don't own cars. S.C. Republicans vote first on Jan. 19.
In describing his role, Went voices a sentiment likely shared by volunteers of all political persuasions: "Whatever it takes to get the man elected," he said, "that's what I'm willing to do."
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