As the presidential candidates engage in furious pre-caucus spin, one of Sen. Hillary Clinton's most prominent Iowa supporters said Wednesday that she's already accomplished what she needs to in Iowa and can declare success even if she finishes in third place.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack told ABC News that Clinton has shown that she can appeal to a wide swath of Democrats, which is what she came to Iowa to do.
"She has done what she needed to do here," Vilsack said shortly before a Clinton campaign event in Indianola. "When she started the process she was way behind — it's now by all standards a competitive race."
Asked if the order of finish matters, Vilsack deflected the question.
"She absolutely had to be competitive, and she's accomplished that," he said. "Obviously, everybody's interested in winning, and I think we're going to do well. It's tight. There's no question about that."
Vilsack's comments stand in marked contrast to optimistic predictions he has made in the past, including last May, when he endorsed Clinton's candidacy.
In May, Vilsack was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "There's no question she's playing in Iowa and playing to win." Vilsack dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year and endorsed Clinton."
Vilsack's comments reflect the widespread uncertainty — and the panicked dash to manage expectations — among both Democratic and Republican candidates as all candidates seek to close strong in the most wide-open set of caucuses in Iowa's history.
Former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney used his last full day on the trail before Iowa to blast Clinton, suggesting that he wouldn't embarrass the nation with scandals — a not particularly veiled reference to the Clinton administration.
"We'll try to represent ourselves and our nation well also to our kids, because I think kids watch the White House, and there have been failures in the past in the White House if you go back to the Clinton years and recognize that I think [they] had an enormous impact on the culture of our country," Romney said on CNN. "If we can't be perfect, we'll do our best to uphold and to be a good example for the kinds of values I think people expect from our leaders."
Thursday's caucus results will clarify and almost certainly shrink the field of candidates.
The Democratic race is a three-way contest among Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards to be first. The Republican fight for first is among former Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, with the battle for third place carrying almost equal importance.
As candidates crisscrossed the Hawkeye State in a final burst of campaigning, all three Democrats purchased television time across Iowa markets for Wednesday evening. Edwards of North Carolina is using his 60 seconds of airtime to have an Iowa resident, who lost his job when a Maytag plant closed, talk about his first interaction with Edwards.
Edwards "grabbed my 7-year-old son by the hand, he dropped to one knee, and he looked him straight in the eye and he said, 'I'm going to keep fighting for your daddy's job. I promise you that.' You know, that stuff sticks with you," Doug Bishop, the laid-off worker, says in the ad.
"That's the kind of things we need in a leader in this country," Bishop said. "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.' That's what I want."
Edwards' fiery rhetoric on the stump stands in sharp contrast to the sober, low-key close Clinton is offering Iowans.
"After all the town meetings, the pie and the coffee, it comes down to this: Who's ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on Day 1, and we can solve them," Clinton says in her ad.
On the Republican side, Huckabee took an unorthodox approach to the final night before Iowa: He'll be on Jay Leno's couch on the first episode of "The Tonight Show" to appear live since the writers' strike.
Romney, R-Mass., used that as an opportunity to take a swipe at his rival.
"He is more focused on the caucus in L.A. than the caucus in Iowa," Romney told reporters.
Before leaving Iowa, Huckabee cast himself as the underdog, playing colonial revolutionary to Romney's British Red Coats.
"At the beginning of this country, there were some farmers with muskets. Nobody thought they could beat the British. After all, the British were so well-financed. And they had the nice long rifles," Huckabee said. "They had a magnificent Navy; our guys had a few rowboats."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., planned to return to Iowa Wednesday afternoon, taking a break from New Hampshire campaigning in an effort to snag third place.