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Pace quickens as candidates storm Iowa

This contest is like no other, caucus-watchers say. Politicians are on the air, on the phone and maybe at your door.

December 30, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — With uncertainty the only sure thing, the fight for Iowa hurtled into its final stretch on Saturday amid a blizzard of TV ads, speeches, phone calls and door-knocking by a presidential field that, more than ever, has staked its hopes on this snowy state.

The spectacle of two wide-open races fueled by record spending -- even in a place that thrives on political competition -- was unprecedented.

From sunrise until deep into the dark, nearly a dozen contenders waged the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat, trading jabs from the stage and across the airwaves while touting themselves as the one, true champion of change.

"We need to turn the page on our politics," Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois told audiences at several stops. "We need to stand for change that America can believe in."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York countered that she alone had the experience "to make the kind of changes America desperately needs."

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney promised that he would transform Washington just as he remade businesses and rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics. "I brought change to almost every organization that I've been part of," he said.

With Democrats Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in a three-way tie in polls and Romney battling to reclaim the Republican lead against former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the candidates stormed Iowa as if their political survival was at stake -- which it may be for some.

Foot soldiers staffed phone banks and trudged door-to-door -- sometimes sharing the sidewalk with workers from opposing campaigns -- as they labored to sway the undecided and coax supporters to come out Thursday night, when Iowans will cast the first ballots of the 2008 campaign.

The caucuses here will be followed by New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary five days later -- Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona had that state almost to himself Saturday -- and then by a series of contests that will climax on Feb. 5 when 22 states, including California, hold what amounts to a national referendum.

On Saturday, however, the focus was almost entirely on the farm towns and urban centers of Iowa, from Sioux City in the northwest to Burlington, 350 miles away, in the southeast. In all, 10 candidates staged more than 40 events across the state, beneath a bonnet of blue sky that brought temperatures into the 20s and offered a welcome break between snowstorms.

In many ways the scene was familiar, with Iowa once more the center of the political galaxy. But even veteran caucus-watchers said that in 30-plus years, they had never seen a contest like the one this year. (And not just because it was waged, unremittingly, through the holiday season.)

Candidates and outside groups have spent tens of millions of dollars, obliterating spending records, and together they have broadcast tens of thousands of TV ads. (On Saturday during one 6 a.m. Des Moines newscast, which was dominated by campaign coverage, virtually every spot was a political commercial.)

For all that effort, however, the Democratic and Republican races remained tight.

An aggregate of the latest Iowa polls showed Clinton with 30% support, Edwards 27% and Obama 26%, a statistical dead heat. On the Republican side, the aggregate showed Huckabee with 31% support to Romney's 29%, also effectively a tie. Several GOP candidates were vying for third place.

But polling is notoriously difficult given the quirky nature of the caucuses. A combination town hall and kaffeeklatsch, the 1,784 precinct-level gatherings require intense organization on the part of candidates and a deep commitment on the part of supporters. With forecasters predicting temperatures below freezing, candidates urged voters not to shrink from the opportunity.

"What an extraordinary privilege to be an Iowan and to have probably more to do with electing the next leader of the free world than anybody else on earth," Obama told an audience of several hundred Saturday night in Mount Pleasant. "Please take advantage of that privilege."

In a time of discontent -- amid war, high gas prices and a miserable housing market -- the buzzword of the political season has been change. But what that amounts to, and who can best deliver it, is the subject of fierce dispute, particularly on the Democratic side.

Clinton argued Saturday that her background "from Day One" made her uniquely suited to be president. She recounted her work on children's issues and healthcare and as an informal overseas ambassador during her husband's White House administration.

"Who is tested and proven to be able to win against whatever the Republicans decide to do?" Clinton asked the crowd that filled a high school gymnasium in the town of Clinton. "I believe it is imperative that we have a president who understands exactly what is going to wait for him or her in the Oval Office. "

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