Seven days before Iowa -- and mindful of the perils of prognostication in a race where major candidates are now carrying shotguns -- here's as close to conclusive as we can be about the state of the presidential race:
For the Democrats, the Jan. 3 caucuses are likely to mark the beginning of the end of the race (and that means everyone's got a target on his or her back).
For the Republicans, that same date is looking like it will mark only the end of the beginning (yet, as both Mike Huckabee and those pheasants he introduced himself to on Wednesday know by now, this is no time for target practice).
(And then there's the always-present power of external events: How will the tragic news out of Pakistan impact the race? Watch for foreign policy to scramble the best-laid plans -- and who will be the first to shape Benazir Bhutto's assassination into a campaign message?)
It is the realization that there could be only two Democratic tickets (or maybe just one) out of Iowa that has sparked the post-Christmas sense of urgency. And the focal point of the action -- the newly dominant figure in the sense of being in the middle of all the big fights right now -- isn't Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; it's Sen. Barack Obama.
Obama, D-Ill., is simultaneously comparing list sizes with Clinton, D-N.Y., and crowd sizes with former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. He's tussling with Edwards over 527 groups and with both Clintons over experience questions. And when he delivers his "closing argument" of a speech Thursday at 11:15 am ET in Des Moines, he's calling on his supporters (and those on the fence) to believe in him.
"My bet was that if we presented a campaign of change, then the American people would respond," Obama said Wednesday in northern Iowa, the Chicago Tribune's James Oliphant and John McCormick report. "Vote your hopes. . . . Don't vote your fears."
Obama never had a monopoly on the "change" theme, but it's been closer to his core than to his main rivals'. That's why Obama should feel pretty good about where he stands -- and how he's trending -- in this final days before Iowa. One key point from Thursday's speech, per an Obama aide: His core message has never really moved.
Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, Obama's freshly tweaked stump speech hits "the umbrella message that has defined his campaign: change. The slightly different rhetoric will likely make up his final argument trying to woo Iowa voters over one last time."
Clinton isn't very far from the line of fire. With her movie-trailer of a closing argument ad http://youtube.com/watch?v=3QaDUDN0G1k -- no words, just dramatic music photos that portray Clinton as tested and ready -- she's back where she started, too. Clinton on Thursday "injected a note of menace into her case, arguing that 'the job itself is unpredictable' and that only she among the candidates is qualified to do it,'" Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.
"Clinton has shifted from theme to theme in the final weeks of a race that has remained consistently up for grabs, but she seemed to settle back on her original experience argument after two months of attempting to show voters a softer side," Kornblut and Balz write. "Yesterday she criticized Obama's character and questioned whether other Democratic contenders are equipped to beat the eventual Republican nominee."